Unsung Heroes: "Care" Chronicles the Plight of Underpaid, Overworked Home Care Workers

11/10/2016 08:27 am ET
<em>Vilma and Dee, from the documentary, “Care” </em>
Vilma and Dee, from the documentary, “Care”

I wanted to start this review with a moving quote. Or a startling statistic.

But then, Miss Nina, a salty old girl nearly bed-ridden after a stroke but determined not to go quietly into that last “goodnight,” sent a chill up my own 65-year-old spine.

With a sassy stare, she told her home care worker, Delores, "You ain’t never had a hard time yet. Oh yeah, you gonna get one one day."

Hit me where I live. Because my “one day” may be closer than I like to think. And I probably will not have a doting Delores to help me face it.

Care, a documentary premiering in DOC NYC’s “American Perspectives” on Nov. 13 at 2:15 p.m. (SVA Theatre, 333 W 23rd St.) is a quiet—maybe too quiet--little film. It tells a powerful tale of dedication in the face of desperation, through the eyes of workers and clients caught in our woefully inadequate home health care system where the median income is $13,000 per year.

That’s right, $13,000 per year.

"There is not a single town in this country where you can survive and pay your bills, let alone support a family off of $13,000 per year,” says Ai-jen Poo, author of Age of Dignity. “So no matter how committed you are to this work or to the family that you're supporting, you're going to be faced with a real question of how you're going to survive."

Miss Nina’s guardian angel, Delores—most subjects are addressed by their first names—is compelling proof. Left homeless after Hurricane Sandy, as the film opens she is nearing the end of her time in FEMA hotel housing. Unable to afford permanent housing on her meager wage, she winds up in a women’s shelter that won’t take her son Tarik.

It’s the only way she can continue to care for Miss Nina. All other options are too far away or too expensive.

“He's not even allowed to come into the building to ask a security guard 'Can I see my mother?'” Delores says. “They're very cruel, this shelter system."

Home care worker Vilma is also missing a son. Born in Costa Rica, she is a recently widowed undocumented worker whose dream of a green card is fading fast.

"I came here because I married an American guy. I was thinking I will become a citizen,” she explains. “It don't come true. Because my husband became disabled and I can't make enough money for doing my papers.”

After a passionate prayer in front of her candle lit altar, she wipes tearful eyes and says, "Tomorrow my son, he will be 18 years. It's very hard because I can't kiss him, I can't get him in my arms. It's a shame, you know?

And yet she dotes on the indomitable, 93-year-old Dee, with heart-rending tenderness, tucking her in each night with a kiss, a fervent prayer, and a “Good night, my angel,” that would send anyone off to Dreamland with a smile.

"Every elder person has the right to have the real attention,” Vilma insists. “The real care. Because you're going to be older, too.”

She’s bang on. In fact, at the end of the film, there’s a chilling stat: by 2040, the number of elders in this country will double. More and more of us are headed toward those “hard times” Miss Nina warned of.

And our eldercare system is nowhere near ready.

“The conditions of work are so harsh, it’s like the Wild West,” Poo says. “But it’s not only the Wild West for workers, where there’s no standards or guidelines or training or supports, but it’s also a Wild West environment for families on their own struggling to afford the home care they need. The system that we have is not working for anyone.”

No one in the film knows this better than Toni, wife of former CBS executive Peter Sturtevant. Once a highly-respected bureau chief, Sturtevant is now painfully frail and battling what she calls a “particularly vicious form of Parkinson's Disease.”

“We’ve spent as much in the last 12 months on the aides as I’ve earned in the last four years,” a despondent Toni explains. “We’ve worked all our lives, both of us. Peter has a small pension but mostly 401Ks. The only thing we have for sure is Social Security. We could sell our home. We could--I don’t know. I don’t know what we could do. And sometimes I’m walking down the street, and I’m starting to blink, and I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be. This isn’t happening. But it is.”

There are several stories like Toni’s in Care, each one an equally unsettling cautionary tale of a family making the best of a very, very bad situation. Moment by moment, day by day.

Dee, by film’s end, has depleted her savings and faces losing her home care and the freedom she cherishes. But in one of the last and most moving scenes, she’s out in a park with Vilma, immensely enjoying the greenery and fresh air.

After an uphill walk to a bench, Vilma flashes that delightful smile and offers a triumphant, “We made it, my love. We made it.”

But how many more walks will there be?

Photo credit: Heidi Gutman

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