By Paul V. Palange

My mother is 92 years old and isn’t in the best of health. She underwent surgery a few months back and is recuperating in a rehabilitation facility.

I frequently confer with my sister about our mom, and during a recent conversation we started chatting about a related topic – working as a direct support professional (DSP). We agreed that job must be quite difficult, and that it takes a special person to be a DSP for elderly patients. I know other populations are served by DSPs, and that those workers are also valuable, but the focus in this column is on seniors for obvious reasons.

Our observation is that DSPs usually treat their patients with dignity and respect. The DSPs approach their patients with a positive attitude, smiling and addressing them with sincerity. Our mom always has her favorites, and she tells us which ones are the most caring and gentle. She ensures all of them use her nickname, ‘Gigi,’ and the DSPs seem to get a kick out of that.

We deeply appreciate how the DSPs carry themselves and deliver services, especially when considering what they have to do. Tasks such as administering medication and giving a patient an extra blanket might seem unimportant to us. To the population in a rehabilitation facility, however, they are considered acute needs as the patients wonder when they are going to be well enough to return to the comfort and safety of their homes and the embrace of their loved ones.

What’s even more admirable to us is the often flawless execution of other duties such as assisting with patients’ personal hygiene or changing the dressing on incisions.

In addition, the DSPs seem to be good listeners, taking the concerns of patients seriously. The DSPs change what they can, alleviating discomfort or making environmental adjustments, and pass on up the ladder the complaints they cannot resolve.

All the DSPs I talked to said they love what they do, and that they want to stay in the profession even though they are underpaid and understaffed. Starting salaries for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are as low as $11 per hour and work shifts can be 10 or more hours long. Benefits such as health insurance are inadequate, too. How can we expect people to become CNAs or caregivers under those conditions?

If the decision makers in the private sector are not going to step up and appropriately compensate caregivers for the work they do, then it’s up to legislators to pick up the ball and pass bills that will ensure direct support professionals for the elderly can earn a living wage. The elderly are a very vulnerable segment of the population that should not be at risk because of a labor crisis. The time to act is now.