The care needs of an aging population and the low pay of some of those tasked with fulfilling those needs intersected in a documentary airing last night on HBO.
“Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert” follows the financial and other struggles of a 30-year-old single mother of three making $9.49 an hour as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in a Tennessee extended care facility. (If you missed it last night, the documentary is available online at no charge through March 24 on HBO.com, ShriverReport.org and YouTube and also will be televised again on HBO and HBO2 several times through the end of the month.)
“Even nurses say a CNA’s job is the backbone to the nursing field,” Gilbert says as the camera shows her performing the various duties of her position. As much as she enjoys the work and the residents she helps care for, “I don’t want to be a CNA for the rest of my life,” she says, later adding, “It wears you out. It wears your body down. I feel like I’m 60 years old.” She plans to return to school to further her career in healthcare.
The film is just one part of a multiplatform initiative, The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, conducted in partnership with the Center for American Progress. The focus of the effort is not healthcare, but poverty, especially as it relates to working women and their families. Nonetheless, healthcare figures prominently in the issue, not only because the documentary’s subject is employed in long-term care but also because of the challenges Gilbert faces related to paying for doctors’ appointments and prescriptions and the effects that those challenges have had on her life.
“Katrina’s story is typical of the nation’s more than four million direct-care workers—nursing assistants, home health aides and personal care aides,” Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute President Jodi Sturgeon wrote in a related MomsRising.org blog. “These workers provide 70 to 80 percent of hands-on, long-term care to elders and people with disabilities living in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, community settings and their homes. Direct-care workers like Katrina are the invaluable backbone of our nation’s long-term care system, yet they earn poverty-level wages.”
Those aren’t surprising words to hear from the head of an organization that has a goal of promoting fair pay for those in the direct care workforce. As Sturgeon also points out, however, Americans need to figure out how to address the issues that drive direct care workers to depend on Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized child care—and drive them to look elsewhere for employment at the precise point in time when our country’s growing older population needs them more than ever. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that demand for direct-care workers will increase by 37 percent over the next 10 years, Sturgeon notes.