‘The Most Rewarding Job I Have Ever Had’
At a time when the home care industry is struggling with a workforce shortage, leaders must consider a wide range of demographic groups for possible candidates. Two demographic groups that hold potential for this workforce are older workers and men, which PHI profiled in early 2018.
I recently spoke with Larry Kuhn, a Chicago-based, 62-year-old home care worker about his new role—why he began a career in this sector and what he has learned along the way. Here’s what he had to say.
Anna Ortigara: Larry, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Larry Kuhn: I grew up just south of Chicago in the suburbs of Riverside and Dolton, Illinois. My occupation was working in wine and coffee sales for 35 years. It was good work, and I was good at it, but I was getting tired of that routine. I also felt like it was time to move beyond being a salesman. I thought, there must be something better to do with my life.
AO: Did you immediately consider a career in home care?
LK: Truly, I had never considered being a home care worker. But I did have personal experience with family members as they aged. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease, and so I had seen that it was a hard disease for both the person and the family. It took a toll on my dad as he watched my grandfather advance through the disease. Alzheimer’s impacts everybody–it is a whole family experience. I think this made me aware of aging issues and the need among families for support.
AO: How did get you interested in home care work?
LK: My church has a group named “Call to Care.” Through that group, I became involved with three families, and one had a gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease. I would visit his home, bring a bottle of wine, and we would order pizza and visit for five or six hours. It was a visit with the whole family, and they really looked forward to our time together. I think my presence gave the family and the gentleman the comfort of having someone who wanted to be with them. And I loved our time together–it made me feel great.
This experience got me thinking that maybe I wanted to do this more formally as a home care aide. I spoke to my wife and she was so supportive. She said, “Yes! You can do it, you would be really great at this.” That was the encouragement I needed.
My brother works for a home care agency, All Trust Home Care, so I talked to him. At first, he seemed surprised at my interest but then he helped me get started.
AO: What do you enjoy about the job?
LK: As I started with my first client, I had an important insight: it is not just about the client, but the spouse, too. The spouse is there all the time and is exhausted. When I am there, she [this client’s spouse] has eight hours of relief. She goes out and has a normal day with time for herself. When I started with the client, the spouse was beside herself, exhausted. Now, when she comes back at the end of the day, I can see she is relaxed. It feels so good that I do that for her. In fact, this spouse sent me a note recently that said, “I hope you love your job because I think you are really good at it. Thank you!” It made my day.
AO: Did you have any reservations?
LK: Of course. I was unsure if I would be good at this work. I knew I had the communication skills, and I am a good listener. What I learned is that if you feel good about being with the person who is living with dementia, then they relax and enjoy being with you. We are enjoying the moment together. When I am there, the time flies.
AO: What does this work mean to you?
JK: I am at a time in my life when I can do this work. I like being on my own. I am my own boss. My supervisor is there, but I have a lot of freedom. I can do this the rest of my life.
I serve as companionship for this gentleman. I make him breakfast, we go out to lunch, we watch movies. I have Sirius radio, so we listen to the 60’s channel and take a one-hour drive and sing together. We are in the same age group, so we have a shared life experience. We go out on long walks and bring the dog along. This gentleman is losing the ability to speak, so we rely on non-verbal communication. He is living with a form of dementia. I try hard to keep communicating with him.
AO: What surprised you about this work?
LK: How many people you must deal with. When I started working with this gentleman, all his family and neighbors came to meet me. They wanted to make sure that I was trustworthy and the right person for the job. They would say, “You better be taking care of this man! He is loved!” And because I am not your typical home care worker, they asked me, “Why are you doing this work?” Now they don’t come around. They trust me and are reassured that my client is doing well.
AO: What would you say to other older workers who are looking for work options?
LK: I have a buddy whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease. He called me up and said he wanted to do this work. I told him to go for it! Now, he is interviewing for a home care job. To do this work, you need patience and a heart. You need to join the person where they are at and go with their rhythms and flow. These are valuable people and they are living their lives. This is the hardest job I have ever had and the most rewarding job I have ever had. At the end of the day I am so drained yet so happy.