Caregiver shortage in Washington exacerbated by pandemic


As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, Washington state faces an unprecedented caregiver shortage, which has left some senior citizens without the crucial care they need. 

Whitney Oswald, the contracts manager for the Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities of Southwest Washington, said the agency is tasked with helping older adults “stay and age” in place in a setting of their choice, which often includes in-home services. 

“Having caregiving services to help them remain as independent as possible while staying at home is key,” Oswald said. 

Without caregiver services, many older adults are unable to care for themselves safely and have to instead find a facility to live in, she said. For many, that’s an “undesirable” choice. 

“They often have to downsize from a home that they’ve lived in for many years into a facility apartment, so they have to get rid of a lot of their belongings,” Oswald said. “A lot of times, they aren’t allowed to bring pets to the facility as well, so they have to say goodbye to their pets that they love. It’s not a place that many adults would choose to be in if they were able to be self-sufficient at home.”

Outside of professional caregivers, older adults often rely on family and friends for help, but Oswald said sometimes those people move away or develop their own priorities. The decline of mobility is another factor that can make matters harder for senior citizens, she said. 

A news release from USAging stated that 94% of Area Agencies on Aging have seen an increase in the number of seniors who have requested support. Of those agencies, 95% reported an increase in the complexity of needs senior citizens are seeking. The release stated 99% of the agencies who responded to surveys reported increased social isolation and loneliness as a result of staff shortages. 

“I think nationally, there’s a workforce shortage just across the board in many different sectors, but I think being a caregiver is a specific kind of job that requires someone that wants to help people,” Oswald said. “A lot of people don’t necessarily want to go into this line of work. There’s a lot of personal care around toileting, a lot of things that are undesirable for some people to do.”

Another reason for the caregiver shortage is there are other comparable jobs with similar wages that provide more perks and have less demand on a person’s body since caregivers are sometimes required to lift clients to aid with mobility issues. 

Mike Reardon, the executive director of the Area Agency on Aging & Disabilities of Southwest Washington, said there was a significant shortage of caregivers in the workforce prior to the pandemic.  

“Now it is at the crisis level with individuals waiting two to four months for a caregiver,” Reardon said. “This shortage is impacting the entire health care system from hospitals, to nursing facilities, to home care agencies. Individuals in settings such as hospitals and nursing homes are having their stay extended because they cannot get the caregiver services needed to return home.”  

The agency’s Community Services Manager Christina Marneris has witnessed the impacts of the caregiver shortage firsthand.  

“To be able to take a break while someone else is providing care, if you’re living in rural areas within Clark County, sometimes that can take up to 16 weeks for someone to be available, and so that means that person may have a difficult time finding a break,” Marneris said. “We know just historically that family caregivers struggle to maintain their own health care … and so if you don’t have resources or supports in place where you can go and either attend to your own health care or your own self-care or wellness, it just creates a higher stress for those family caregivers.”