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Postcards From The Pandemic: Home Health Aide's High Risk, Low Pay

Joanne Wittenbrook relies on her retirement income to supplement her wages as a home health aide. [Joanne Wittenbrook]
Home health aide Joanne Wittenbrook

Joanne Wittenbrook is a part-time home health aide with clients in Brecksville, Twinsburg, and occasionally other east side suburbs.

She helps her elderly clients — an especially vulnerable population — with household tasks and errands. But she herself is retired and in an older age group, so she could also have health issues if she caught COVID-19.

“I’m very concerned for my clients. I’m also very concerned for my own health,” she said. “It’s a very scary time for all of us.”

Wittenbrook retired from a full-time technical writing job almost two years ago and now works with two elderly clients. She cooks, cleans, and helps them with medical needs. She brings them to doctors’ appointments and to religious services, plays games with them, and talks with them throughout her shifts. She’s also a confidant and companion.  

“I develop close relationships with my clients and their families,” she said. “I’m not just their aide, I’m also their friend.”

Her clients now want to talk about the virus and their fears regarding the pandemic.

“I have one client that lives alone,” she said. “Periodically I can tell that she’s feeling frightened. I will often at the end of my shifts spend a couple hours with her to make her feel a little bit better and not quite so alone.”

When Wittenbrook heard about the first COVID-19 cases in the United States, she made sure she had gloves, masks, cleaning supplies, and other equipment. She uses them when she goes grocery shopping for her clients and makes sure she wipes down anything she brings into her clients’ homes.

Wittenbrook disinfects items she brings into her clients' homes. [Joanne Wittenbrook]

“I’ve always worn gloves with clients. However, I made sure that I would be able to take extra precautions,” she said. “I’m very careful when I bring things to them.”

In addition to disinfecting groceries and anything else she brings into their homes, she also leaves things outside including her shoes and coat.

She says the pandemic is highlighting issues within the country’s health care system. Her job, she said, pays little more than people working in minimum wage jobs, a problem that has been brought to light by government groups including the Summit County Nursing Homes and Facilities Task Force.

“It just kind of shows that we don’t particularly value the care of our elders very much,” Wittenbrook said.

She appreciates the personalized care she’s able to give her clients as a home health aide, but she worries about risking her and her family’s health by going out every day to help her clients.

“I know my clients really values me, but I don’t think society as a whole really values the kind of work that I’m doing,” she said. “If I didn’t have retirement income and Medicare, I really couldn’t do this kind of work. It’s just not something that a person can sustain their life on.”

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158