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Douglas County group stresses need for caregivers

Members say the shortage of workers has led to facilities closing, beds left empty and hospital backlogs.

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SUPERIOR — A grassroots campaign is under way to address the local caregiver shortage.

We Care: Douglas County was formed in 2019 to connect agencies, resources and community members.

“We have had a caregiver crisis up here for a long time and COVID just exasperated all of that, made it a lot worse,” said Deb Magowan, community living program manager with Inclusa, a managed care organization that works with the elderly and people with disabilities.

The caregiver crisis has been “absolutely devastating,” she said. Providers in the community have closed; some facilities have shut down wings of buildings.

“People don’t have anywhere to go; we can’t find caregivers for people in their home,” Magowan said.

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It’s a problem that none of the agencies or organizations can tackle alone.

“This is a community problem, you know. Inclusa is not going to fix this, Embark (Supported Employment) is not going to fix it ... Northwest CEP (Concentrated Employment Program) is not going to fix it; IRIS (a self-directed program for Wisconsin's frail elders and adults with disabilities) is not going to fix this. But if we all come together as a local Douglas County community and talk about what can we all do to chip in, and come up with some ideas to help the caregiver crisis,” Magowan said.

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Online comments will be taken on the plan through Aug. 31.

The group’s top priority is educating the public about the need, followed by finding ways to help retain and recruit caregivers in the area. Recent successes include a class of students who completed a personal care worker class at Superior High School and seven students who graduated from a new certified nursing assistant program at Northwestern High School. The Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program played a pivotal role in both.

We Care: Douglas County publishes a quarterly newsletter that features local caregivers, includes links to job openings in the field and stresses how fulfilling the work can be.

“It’s not just a job. You just don’t make a paycheck and go home," said Kristin Waklee, member support manager for Inclusa. "You’re giving back, you’re helping people, you’re making connections with people.”

Domino effect

Waklee said four facilities in the Superior area have closed this spring due to a lack of caregivers, a net loss of roughly 30 beds. That problem is exacerbated by a severe lack of affordable housing options in the area.

“People that maybe don’t need residential (care), they can live on their own, but they just need support. Where are they going to live?” Magowan asked.

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The lack of caregiving options can also lead to patients being hospitalized longer than necessary because there’s nowhere for them to go to get the care they need, Waklee said.

“That’s bad, obviously, for the person that’s in there, but it’s also bad for people that are waiting for that bed that need it,” Magowan said, calling it a "domino effect."

The lack of caregivers has also left nursing homes in the county with empty beds that they can’t fill, Waklee said.

The caregiver shortage has affected We Care members on both professional and personal levels.

Ashby Rawstern, executive director of Embark Supported Employment, said her mother was diagnosed with ALS three years ago. She was living in her own home until a week ago.

“And she could still remain in her home, but we could not get care,” Rawstern said. “She was authorized for five and a half hours a day, to help her get up in the morning and to help put her to bed at night, and we could not get anyone to come help us.”

Rawstern and her aunt took on the bulk of those personal care duties for two months, going to her mother’s house a minimum of three times a day until she was authorized to move into a skilled nursing facility. Due to the move, Rawstern’s mother had to leave behind her emotional support dog.

“It’s very disheartening, the lack of staff, because she could still be living in her own home,” Rawstern said.

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How to help

We Care: Douglas County is seeking new members — individuals as well as agency and business representatives — and creative ideas for addressing the caregiver crisis. The group is taking suggestions for local caregivers to highlight in future publications. They can also be tapped to give presentations on the issue. The group meets the second Tuesday of the month from 3-4 p.m. virtually.

To connect with the grassroots group, sign up for the newsletter, request a presentation or join a meeting, email wecaredouglascounty@gmail.com.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.