Who Cares for the Caregivers?

The ouroboros of undervaluation

Sharon Madanes, Cherry Pie Today Is For You. 2015, oil on Panel, 12 × 12". Courtesy of the artist.

These are uncertain times. [Somber piano music.] Times when being close to the ones we love is more difficult than ever. [Cut to grandma.] Our city streets are quiet. Our small businesses are struggling. [Plastic bag floats past a shuttered storefront.] But here on television, we believe that Covid-themed advertisements can helpby thanking the first responders and essential workers who have done so much. [Music quickens, brightens.] The nurses, to whom Burger King donated Whoppers. The health-care workers, recipients of “Thank You Meals” from McDonald’s. The people who stock our warehouses. The grocery store clerks. The food delivery people. The pharmacists. [Violins and drums.] They keep an eye on the trains in Grand Central Station. Sanitize empty playgrounds. Stack boxes of lentils. [Music intensifies.] They are scientists, janitors, firefighters, cops, and vegetable pickersand they are essential. Because without them? [Amazon worker smiles behind mask.] Even the shut-down version of our society could not function. [Music fades.]

We turn off the TV. Time for a walk. We take the long way around the block, and passing the hospital, lock eyes with Rosie the Riveter in scrubs and PPE, flexing from her mural. “We can do it!” she says. How did Americans in the 1940s feel when they walked by the original, maskless Rosie, pasted onto walls or staring down at the factory floor? Did they experience the same degree of disjunction? Nothing is harder to access than a previous era’s sense of irony.

By now we’re familiar with the banners and signs that festoon our country’s hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. HEROES WORK HERE, OUR HEROES WEAR SCRUBS, THANK YOU HEALTH-CARE WORKERS. Surely our health-care workers would have preferred PPE and hazard pay to the all-caps banners, TV advertisements, and 7 pm claps and whistles they got instead. But even this gratitudeforebodingly militaristic, available independent of government competence and in free and unlimited supplyhas failed to reach certain groups of care workers: the home health and personal aides who attend to people in their homes.

More Americans rely on paid home care than reside in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities combined. “We’re definitely a forgotten field,” one aide told a team of researchers early in the pandemic. “You hear people clapping, thanking doctors and nurses, even the hospital cleaning staff”but not home health aides. The study was small, but the sentiment widely shared among interviewees.

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