Adventures in Caregiving: How to build a strong local healthcare workforce?

When I see the challenges faced at home by members of our Rappahannock County family caregiver support group or by families I visit as part of Connections, the free in-home support program for families coping with dementia, I am reminded again and again how important it is to have skilled, caring local people committed to serving the medical professions and the older people, especially, who rely on their services. 

As a former schoolteacher now working with seniors affected by dementia, I was especially interested in this year’s Rappahannock Community Conversation and its central question: How can the Rappahannock community help its young citizens find satisfying local jobs while at the same time meeting its older population’s need for in-home personal care and vital medical services? I was glad to be among the 30-plus people, including school leaders, healthcare professionals, community college representatives and many concerned local citizens, who sat down together recently at the high school to discuss common ways to serve both students and elders.

Two local resources kicked off the Conversation. Jennifer Matthews, PhD., professor of nursing at Shenandoah College, gave an overview of the variety of healthcare careers and the responsibilities and challenges inherent in this type of work. Katie Reeves, vice president of human resources at Fauquier Hospital, talked about the satisfaction healthcare careers can provide as “high touch” jobs. She also described how healthcare careers are becoming more technology-oriented with the use of electronic medical records, medication transcriptions and the use of handheld or portable devices by doctors and nurses

Of great interest at the Conversation was finding ways to support Superintendent Aldridge Boone and the school system in creating a local training program for Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), the entry-level healthcare workers. Members of the Rappahannock Aging Together team are meeting with the superintendent to see how AT can help lay the groundwork for getting the program started. As a result of the Conversation, Fauquier Hospital has offered to look at ways they can provide access to their summer Camp Med program for students. Hospital representatives at the meeting said they will also consider ways to support the CNA training program, which includes an on-the-job clinical training component. 

Among the other ideas discussed at the Conversation were finding ways for students to preview or shadow healthcare jobs, holding general or healthcare specific career fairs, developing mentoring options for students interested in healthcare careers, and providing training in job readiness skills. By the end of the Conversation the excitement in the room could be felt by everyone there. The room stayed full for at least a half an hour after the official Conversation ended. Small groups broke out among the participants to talk about how to follow up on particular ideas. 

In addition to the school’s interest in a CNA program, several local strengths seem to suggest the potential for progress in serving the needs of both age groups. Conversation participants pointed out that many young adults in the county are involved in local rescue squads as junior members, learning valuable healthcare skills and often moving up to full members or on to careers as paid EMTs (although outside of the county, which relies on volunteers). Lord Fairfax Community College representatives noted that the college has training available. Fauquier Hospital’s Reeves said that system consistently needs to hire direct-care staff. 

Healthcare careers can be stressful, participants emphasized, and often require non-traditional hours, but can be a first step in the career ladder for students just out of high school or college, or those returning to the workforce. They encompass a range of skills and activities as well as a wide range of pay. Life skills, a strong work ethic and patience are as important as technical skills in this field, nurses at the Conversation added. Part of the discussion at the Conversation was how to help those entering the healthcare field have a good understanding of what this work entails. 

Now the real work begins as the Aging Together team starts to implement some of the ideas developed at the Conversation. If you are interested in helping to develop healthcare careers as a job opportunity in Rappahannock, join us at our next meeting. The Rappahannock Aging Together team meets at 2:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of every month at the Rappahannock Library. For more information on Aging Together or workforce development activities contact Bonnie Vermillion at 540-829-6405 or bvermillion@agingtogether.org

(Thanks to Chris Miller of Aging Together for her help with this column.)