Serena Maria warmly remembers the first older person she took care of.

“Her name was Liberty Bell, and she was born on [the] Fourth of July and she was the sweetest thing,” Maria said.

For about a year, Maria would go to the nonegenarian’s home in Southern California three to seven days a week to help her get dressed, take a shower and eat her meals. Maria loved the connection she built with Liberty Bell and the feeling of helping someone.

But finding enough people like Maria to care for this country’s aging population in their homes and nursing facilities is a major challenge.

About 10 percent of long-term care workers have left the field since the pandemic started. Without enough staff, nursing homes are having to turn people away, family caregivers are struggling as they wait months for a home health aide, and the remaining workers are stretched thin, putting patients at risk.

The sector has struggled for years to attract and retain frontline staff given its low wages, difficult work and often subpar working conditions. The average direct care worker — which includes home care workers, assisted living aides and certified nursing assistants — makes less than $15 per hour. The overwhelming majority of these workers are women, and 61 percent are people of color.

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