Gertrude Hii Beimers decided she wanted to be a professional caregiver during years of caring for her husband, who died a few years ago of Lou Gehrig's disease. So she got her certified nursing assistant (CNA) degree and started work for Catalina In-Home Services in Tucson, Arizona, providing home care. "Like a lot of other direct care workers," she said, "I found my way to my career through caring for a member of my own family."
Her story is not unusual these days, with these two trends conflating at rapid speed: people living longer and requiring help with chronic illnesses, and boomers like Beimers wanting to make a living doing something meaningful.
"My spiritual beliefs led me to help people, and I needed to work full time after my husband passed," she said. "I realized that I can do this work and get paid."
Pat Berardo also had a personal reason for making her transition. After 14 years of caring for her parents and mother-in-law, Berardo left her career in marketing at the start of 2012 to start For Excellence in Care, a business that pairs professional companions with elderly patients in the New York metropolitan area. "While more people are seeing the market potential, there's a lack of consistent quality with professional caregivers," she says. "That means there's great opportunity for new people who want to enter this field. That was my motivation -- to bring greater consistency and quality to this void."
How do you know if you possess the qualities that would make professional caregiving the right choice for you?
"To be good at this and also be able to weather the downsides, professional caregivers need to be consistent, unflappable, focused, compassionate, patient, and motivated by finding a purpose and the rewards you'll get by making a difference with older and infirm people," Berardo says.
It's a rewarding profession, but it's more challenging than some who've dabbled in caregiving might think, if they haven't done the work full time. "You may be a great cook at home and love making a wonderful meal for your family, but that doesn't mean you're cut out to be a chef," says Berardo.
If you think you want to explore professional caregiving, here are five concrete steps for you to take:
Consider your motivations.
Before you set the wheels of change in motion, clarify why you want to become a professional caregiver. Do you possess both the interest and the traits that will make you successful on the job?
Ask for feedback.
"Talk to professional caregivers to learn about the time and money investment in education, salary, and career trajectory," says Devra Fishman, who volunteers part time in a hospice in Washington, D.C. "You may also consider volunteering first to get a sense of the environment, challenges, and rewards."
Explore your options.
Attend caregiver's classes to learn the basics of this profession. Consider beginning your work as a companion through organizations like For Excellence in Care, which offers critical caregiving support -- everything short of medical care in the home. Apply for work at a home care agency, since many offer training. Check out organizations like the Family Caregiver Alliance, which offers workshops, seminars, and classes for individuals who want to work as professional caregivers.
Get training and/or a degree.
While a degree isn't always a requirement to become a caregiver, training is an asset when seeking and working with clients. Where to start? Some colleges provide courses for prospective caregivers. Take a relatively quick course and become a certified home health aide (CHHA). One option for finding a course near you is to visit the American Red Cross and search for nurse assistant and home health aide training in your state. If you choose to get an advanced degree, common ones to explore are nurse, LPN (licensed practical nurse), or CNA (certified nursing assistant).
Make sure you're OK with potential salaries, which vary by location, facility, and degree. "Pay for a CNA can be low and we work long shifts, for at least 50 hours a week," says Beimers. Berardo adds, "If you're looking to go into this field, you'll make the most money if you're hired directly by a family or facility, since you won't be working through a fee-based agency that will take a cut of your wages."
For now, Beimers is happy with her choice of degree and profession, even if the pay isn't ideal. "Two years after starting this fulltime, I still love it," she says. "To do this work, you have to love the people. I know that getting an LPN degree might lead to higher pay, but that option takes more time, and I really like working one-on-one with patients."