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Millions of Americans are abandoning their jobs. The caregiving crisis has pushed me to join them

November 3, 2021, 8:28 PM UTC
Home care workers have skills, training, and compassion—but they struggle with dismal pay and poor working conditions.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

I never imagined that I would have to choose between my career and caring for my aging mom. But at 50 years of age, I’m back on the job market, looking for flexible work that will allow me to stay home with her. Without any support, millions of women across America encounter a similar caregiving crisis.

They’re calling it the Great Resignation: The Labor Department recently reported that 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August. I was just a few steps ahead of them. I quit mine in July.

While the top reasons people are leaving their jobs are for better pay and job security, many of us are quitting because we have to care for our aging parents at home. I love what I do, but I need to help care for my aging mother. It turns out that given the available options, it was the only workable solution to provide my mom the care she needed.

Women of my generation often face the daunting challenge of finding long-term care for our aging parents. As the years passed, I’ve watched my 81-year-old mother’s physical and cognitive abilities decline and my caregiving responsibilities increase. 

Hiring an in-home caregiver would be a great option for our family, but home care professionals are hard to find. Most home care workers are Black or brown women who are drastically underpaid, and a lot of them are fleeing the profession. This has created a significant home care shortage for families that desperately need it. Without access to in-home care, it generally falls to women—mothers and daughters like myself—to take on the unpaid responsibilities of caregiving. 

After earning my Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry, I worked in higher education for over 20 years. I loved my profession and worked hard to advance my career. I took on more responsibilities, taught more classes, and rose up the ranks. But my mother’s declining health has put increasing demands on my time, particularly over the past few years. Home health agencies, which typically have a hard time holding onto their staff, couldn’t provide the qualified, reliable care I needed. I worried about missing work opportunities as I assumed greater responsibility for my mother’s care. 

Things came to a head this summer when I finally came to the difficult decision of leaving my job because I couldn’t continue working longer hours while caring for my mother. It’s been more than two years since I last had a day off from my caregiving responsibilities. Before the pandemic, I could ask a sibling to help out. That’s not an option now. And while my mom doesn’t need 24/7 care, I can’t leave her alone overnight.

Every day, I make my mother’s meals and coax her to eat. When I can, I cajole her into taking a bath and scrub her feet. She has difficulty controlling her bladder, so I change her sheets frequently. She’s never been able to use the stairs by herself. I lift her feet on every step to help her get up to her room. I live in an old house that is too narrow to install a chair lift in. I worry about what could happen if I’m not there to help her. 

I’m fortunate that she doesn’t need help getting out of bed or using the bathroom—at least not yet. In just a couple of years, she probably will. When my mom’s needs exceed what I can provide, I’m not sure what I’ll do. 

Women who leave the workforce to take care of their loved ones can expect to lose an estimated $330,000 in wages and benefits over the course of their lifetimes. That fate may await me as well. 

President Biden’s initial Build Back Better plan would have invested $400 billion into the home care industry to create more caregiver jobs by improving their pay and training. Congress is debating components of the reconciliation bill, and home care is on the chopping block. The amount earmarked has already shrunk to $150 billion. Our leaders must invest as much as possible in the care industry, and 79% of Americans agree. 

Caregiving is an emotionally draining and physically demanding job. It requires skills, training, and compassion. It should be compensated accordingly. Congress must invest in home care. Until then, I am my mother’s only option.

Juanita Sharpe lives in Richmond. Sharpe wrote this column in partnership with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which advocates for progressive policies.

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