Direct care workers made my sister feel part of a family

Their incredible work needs to be recognized and appreciated

NURSING HOMES AND OTHER FACILITIES that employ direct care staff are experiencing unprecedented job vacancies and difficulty recruiting and retaining skilled workers. My job in healthcare real estate gives me a window into this world, where an organization’s ability to safely provide care relies on these often-undervalued workers who nonetheless are passionate about this rewarding but difficult work.

But I have another, more personal view of this workforce. This is a story about how my sister, Anath, lived for the last 10 years of her life. Without the remarkable people who cared for her, these years would have been very different and difficult for her, and for me.

While I lived in California, Anath, who had physical and developmental disabilities, continued to live in our childhood home near Boston, cared for by our mother. Anath attended day programs through a local organization called MAB Community Services.

When our mother started showing signs of dementia, Anath needed a safe place to live. Continuity was important, especially in this time of uncertainty. I moved our mother into assisted living and Anath into one of MAB’s group homes. This meant she could continue attending the day programs she liked so much.

Whenever I visited, I saw the warm, attentive care Anath received in her home. This was especially apparent when she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent frequent treatments. At the hospital or when resting at home, she was cared for by a wonderful staffer who always seemed to be there, no matter the shift. She had known Anath a long time and could recognize her emotions, comfort her, and communicate her needs. When I called for updates, I spoke with a real person who was caring for my sister.

Anath passed away in 2018 in the place she called home, surrounded by her caregivers and housemates. She received exceptional end-of-life care. I know this because I was there, thanks to the staff who knew just when to tell me to “come home” so I could share her precious last days with her.

The loss of my sister was wrenching, but I was moved to see my grief shared by Anath’s caregivers. They did not view her as their job, but as their family.

COVID-19 devastated the most vulnerable in our communities and their caregivers. While many of us worked remotely, direct care staff kept risking their lives to care for our loved ones despite the fear, the PPE shortage, the lack of vaccines, or effective treatments. We must acknowledge their bravery and personal sacrifices.

Maxo Joseph was one such caregiver, exhibiting warmth, positivity, and a deep devotion to his job. He was committed to the very highest standards of care, and he was beloved. I heard he turned down promotions so he wouldn’t have to leave the people he cared for. I didn’t know Maxo, but I learned about him when, after 19 years of service at MAB, he died from COVID on April 25, 2020, at age 58.

Maxo was extraordinary, but not unique. I know first-hand there are many like Maxo in direct care service.

Today Maxo’s legacy inspires others through The Maxo Joseph Excellence in Direct Care Awards, which annually recognize MAB direct care employees who serve with excellence. I had the honor of serving on the selection committee the first year and remember reading the compelling and personal nominations and flagging every one as a potential finalist. I read about staff who come in when they aren’t on shift to bring a birthday cake, make a special meal, or celebrate a holiday. Each reminded me of Anath’s caregiver.

Each recipient received a framed certificate and cash award at a meaningful ceremony. It seems like a simple and obvious idea, but this was the first time any had been formally recognized. The result has been retention and better performance. In a field with high turnover, these highly motivated workers sustain the quality and continuity of care we all want for our loved ones.

As Baby Boomers age and many more of us will need this type of care, these workers are essential. Recognizing their true value will benefit the people receiving care. And that’s what this is ultimately about.

Talya Nevo-Hacohen is the chief investment officer at Sabra Health Care REIT, Inc. in Irvine, California.