Elder care is a Jewish imperative. So is paying home health workers a living wage


Andreas Bohnenstengel, Fotograf

Bobbie Sackman, THE FORWARD

This story was originally published on December 29, by The Forward. Sign up here to get the latest stories from The Forward delivered to you each morning.

As a 21-year-old heading off to social work school, I watched my Bubby Jenny die within six months of being put into a nursing home following a stroke. My mother and uncle, her brother, felt helpless and were shattered by both the experience and by their mother’s bitterness toward them at sending her away. There was no care support at home for my grandmother or my family.

How we care for older adults and support family caregivers and home care workers is central to how we live our lives. It factors into how and for what we save, if we can work, where we live, our family relationships and the health and safety of the people who rely on us.

As the movement to increase wages has grown for workers statewide, family caregivers, older adults and people with disabilities understand home care workers — who are predominantly women of color and immigrant women — can’t be left behind. Providing fair pay for home care is a powerful way to show our moral commitment to the elderly and those who care for them. As we read in Psalms 71.9: “Do not cast me off in old age; do not abandon me as my strength fails.”

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Funding for home care is widely popular, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and the NY Caring Majority are currently fighting to pass the Fair Pay for Home Care Act in the New York state Legislature. The momentum is there; we have bipartisan support in the state legislature — including strong support from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins — but to win we need Gov. Kathy Hochul and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to pledge their support as well.

The bill would increase home care workers’ wages statewide to 150% of the regional minimum wage and would keep pace with minimum wage changes in the future. For example, a $15/hour salary would grow to $22.50/hour. With higher wages, home care workers can continue their essential work, and we desperately need them to; there aren’t enough home care workers available for all the people who need help to hire someone. Over half of all home care workers in New York are on public assistance, and almost half live in or near poverty. Some make just $12.50/hour, less than the minimum wage for the state’s fast-food workers. It’s no wonder the state’s home care workforce is shrinking.

That’s why older adults, disabled people, home care workers and family caregivers have come together to advocate for a solution to the shortage. For Jewish New Yorkers, this is a continuation of the long history of communal investment in care for older adults and people with disabilities. Among the largest nonprofit agencies in NYC providing home care are Jewish agencies like the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA) and Selfhelp Community Services. Jewish community-based aging services agencies have been on the forefront of serving both Jews and a diversity of older New Yorkers for over 50 years.

Jewish communal agencies ensure older Jews have sufficient nutritious food, provide kosher and other meals at senior centers and Meals-on-Wheels to homebound elders, as well as provide for the needs of aging Holocaust survivors, many of whom are homebound. The first naturally occurring retirement community — meaning residential building developments that were not designed as a retirement community, but has a large percentage of residents over the age of 60 — emerged in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and was developed through United Jewish Appeal. This and other housing developments like it have empowered thousands of older adults to age in place. Social service organizations bring programs into the buildings. This model of supporting older adults to age where they live is a good one, and more funding for home health aides will only help other similar communities grow.

Older adults and their families want to access care safely at home and avoid unnecessary nursing home placement, but not everyone has access to in-home services. Millions of family caregivers across the state, mostly women, are committed to caring for elderly parents. I’ve often heard people say that the best long-term care insurance is having a daughter or daughter-in-law. It shouldn’t be that way and it doesn’t have to be.

How many times have you and others you know discussed who will care for your elderly parents and other loved ones, or for yourselves? Can you stop working to become a full-time family caregiver? Can you access and afford safe care at home provided by skilled, trained home care workers? Will you have to rely on a nursing home or other institution — something older adults overwhelmingly do not want to do — effectively separating your family?

We all have to ask these questions and make these choices one day. As the movement to increase wages has grown for workers statewide, family caregivers, older adults and people with disabilities understand home care workers — who are largely women of color and immigrant women — can’t be left behind or omitted from the conversation.

I have a photo of my Bubby Jenny. Every so often I look at it and say, “look what you started.” She spoke mostly Yiddish that I barely understood, but we connected so deeply that she inspired me to fight to keep others from suffering like her, a fight I am still in 50 years later.

It’s personal for me again, but in a different way. I am now an older adult concerned about my future care. Who will care for me when I need it?

By establishing a care infrastructure that meets the needs of older adults who need care support, New York will no longer cast off its residents in old age, abandoning us without choices as our strength fails, or leaving us to answer this question alone. There is so much we gain when we work together.

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