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INTERVIEW: Documentary Filmmakers Aim to Make Home Care Work Visible

April 27, 2015

“We’re still working in the shadows because [being a] caregiver is not seen as a profession,” says home care worker Vilma Rozen in a scene from the feature-length documentary, CARE. “Sorry — it’s a profession.”

Vilma is one of several home care workers profiled in CARE, a film that reveals how emotionally and physically strenuous home care workers’ labor actually is — and questions why that labor is insufficiently valued in the U.S.

“People have zero idea of the level of what [home care] workers are doing behind closed doors,” director Deirdre Fishel said in an interview with PHI.

Help Support CARE

Help the CARE filmmakers finish their movie by contributing to their Kickstarter campaign.

Seeing what home care workers actually do, and realizing how critical they are to the lives of the people they care for, has “changed my life,” Fishel said. And knowing how poorly they are paid — the average worker earns just $9.61 an hour; approximately half rely on public assistance to make ends meet — has left a lasting impression as well. “I walk around in a state of outrage all the time now,” she said. “It’s so unfair, so wrong.”

Fishel told PHI that she hopes to release CARE by the fall. The film is nearly finished; Fishel and the rest of the CARE team have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the final stages of editing and post-production.

‘Starting a National Conversation’

The filmmakers have big plans for the movie: they hope that CARE will “start a national conversation about eldercare,” said Tony Heriza, the producer.

The film stems from Fishel’s longstanding interest in both social-justice and aging issues; one of her past documentary projects, Still Doing It, tackled the concept of ageism by exploring the sexual lives of women aged 65 and up. Both Fishel and her long-time collaborator Heriza have seen their parents reach ages at which dependence on others became necessary (Fishel’s mother is in her late 80s, while Heriza’s recently died at 98).

“If you live long enough, even if you’re very lucky, you’ll become frail,” Fishel said. She made CARE partially because she felt that the U.S. eldercare system has failed to adequately confront this reality; the film is just as much about elders’ inability to secure affordable, quality care as it is about the appallingly low wages that home care workers earn.

But the plight of home care workers is front and center to the documentary. In addition to Vilma, a Costa Rican immigrant who cares for a woman named Dee whose dementia and leukemia require 24-hour care, CARE profiles Delores McCrae of the Bronx-based Cooperative Home Care Associates (a PHI affiliate), and Laurie Baja, who earns just $300 a week providing care for a man with COPD and emphysema in rural Pennsylvania. Fishel says she sought out Laurie because she wanted to show the unique difficulties of home care work in a rural setting; she found the conditions in which Laurie lived and worked to be “shocking.”

Shining Light on Home Care Work

Much of the movie is dedicated to bringing the difficult, unglamorous jobs of home care workers out of the shadows. Viewers see Vilma helping Dee into the shower, Delores transferring a consumer from her bed to her wheelchair, Laurie washing her consumer’s legs and feet.

Audiences will realize that home care work is not just “sitting and watching TV with an older person — it’s physically and emotionally challenging,” said Heriza, who expects viewers to react with “warmth and appreciation when they see home care workers.”

[CARE director Deirdre Fishel and producer Tony Heriza]CARE also highlights the familial intimacy of the caregiver-consumer relationship: Vilma prays with Dee before she goes to bed; Laurie sinks into depression after her consumer dies. “At their best,” Fishel said, “these are the most poignant relationships I’ve ever seen.”

‘Doing Important Work, But Still Struggling’

And yet this increasingly important, fast-growing workforce, which works in people’s homes providing a range of difficult and often dangerous services and supports, remains one of the lowest-paid in the country.

CARE illustrates how the universally poor quality of home care jobs weakens the workforce: Laurie, frustrated with her low pay and unreliable hours, quits home care to take a less satisfying but more lucrative job hauling asphalt.

“Home care workers, who work hard and often long hours, should be able to feed their family and pay their rent,” Heriza said. CARE shows “compelling human beings doing important work, but still struggling.”

By doing so, CARE presents a clear argument for improving the quality of home care jobs. But, as Fishel says, the film is directly relevant to anyone who may need to rely on home care in the future — which is to say, the film is directly relevant to everyone.

“This is going to affect all of us — it’s not an ‘other’ situation,” she said. “We want people to walk away from this movie and say, ‘Wow, this is about me. I need to start thinking about this.'”

— by Matthew Ozga

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