Is the person helping your aging mother or father at home qualified to do so? It’s a worry for adult children, because one big slip, fall or other mishap for an elderly relative could lead to serious injury, or worse.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters took a look at agencies that perform non-medical duties called “companion care.”
Right now, there are no laws on the books requiring employees to have any kind of training, even though they will assist the elderly with potentially high-risk activities including feeding, bathing and exercising.
The Troubleshooters spoke with a home companion we're calling “Karen” to protect her identity because she still wants to work in the eldercare industry.
Karen told the Troubleshooters that during her first week at a Connecticut companion care agency, she received no training and had no prior experience and had to bathe an elderly woman last summer. The woman is almost blind, in her 90s, could barely stand on her own and does not speak English.
“I wasn’t prepared to give her a shower. I wasn’t trained to do that," Karen explained. "And not being able to communicate… We would do hand gestures and I wasn’t really sure how to interpret everything.”
Karen told us she quit working for that agency days after receiving the assignment. We have a time sheet showing she did work there, though the agency disputes her claims about what happened.
The bigger question is, what kind of qualifications does someone in Connecticut need if they are feeding, bathing or doing range of motion exercises with your loved one?
It turns out that state laws only require companion care workers to “undergo a comprehensive background check."
Another companion care worker we will call “Brittany,” who also wishes to remain anonymous so she can continue working in the field, said that when it comes to tasks like bathing, the lack of required training can lead to trouble.
“I think that it should be regulated a lot more than it is. You need to know, first of all, how steady are they? Are they gonna be able to stand in the shower? Do they have a shower chair? When you’re washing them, not everybody knows the proper procedure.”
Brittany adds that feeding an elderly person is also something where companion care workers should get some training…and it is not required in Connecticut.
“I mean some people, you have to make sure their food is softened for them. There are some things that you need to know. And you need to know what to look for in case somebody’s choking”
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters shared this with Stephen Tweed, the CEO of Leading Home Care, a Kentucky company that consults home companion companies.
“Every caregiver who is providing personal care, that is, hands on care, should have some basic level of training about how to perform those basic functions.”
Tweed says while most states including Connecticut have few requirements for this kind of work, he does say the number that do is growing.
“We take states like Washington that have a relatively new law that requires 75 hours of training before a caregiver can go out and provide care to their first client.”
Nancy Trawick-Smith, president of The Connecticut Homemaker and Companion Association, says many members do a great job with in house training, and as far as more training requirements…"when that is put into legislation, it often times means it will require a certificate or something to that effect, which could be expensive for the prospective employees, employer, and client.”
State Sen. Kevin Kelly, a ranking member on the legislature’s committee on aging, doubts Connecticut has to go that far.
“We need to properly identify what the individual in need actually requires.”
He believes companion care agencies could do more to train employees on tasks like bathing… and says family members need to recognize when it’s time to switch to a higher level of care.
“What I think we see many times is somebody that might be a little more fragile or further along on the chronic care continuum and they aren’t getting the services or care that would meet what they’re experiencing.”
Now if you choose to go with a companion care agency …ask a lot of questions first….including: how much training do the employees have when it comes to feeding, bathing, and exercising? And if, for example, the agency has a nurse on call to answer employee questions when they are visiting a client.