FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — From the outside, the event looked like an open house and community appreciation, a celebration of the Career Nursing Academy moving to a much larger space in a Locust Grove shopping center.
But inside, the goings-on at the Orange County facility are indicative of what’s happening across the region—and nation. There’s a desperate need for caregivers and nursing aides, both for older people who want to remain in their homes, as well as for those whose physical needs or memory issues have mandated a move to a facility.
And Zoila Ortega, a nurse, medical instructor and health care professional for more than 50 years, created the academy to fill that void. She started the training center in 2015 after she came out of retirement for the third time—joking that old nurses don’t stop working, they just die.
But on a serious note, Ortega was taking care of her mother, and as the older woman’s dementia increased, her English decreased. Ortega, who’s Cuban, searched for a certified nursing aide who could help her.
“There was not a Spanish-speaking CNA to be found,” said Ortega, who’s 73.
So Ortega, who had created the nurse aide program at Germanna Community College—and was an adjunct professor in the nursing department there—set up the Career Nursing Academy. Because she speaks three languages—English, Spanish and French—she gives extra encouragement to those who aren’t native English-speakers as well as to students who might not have had an opportunity for training.
On a recent Saturday, Ortega and her instructors held the community open house and job fair at their academy to try to match students with prospective employers.
“The demand is overwhelming,” Ortega said. “All of the nursing homes are scrambling for CNAs to work, and then the people who want to stay at home—and there are a significant number who want to be at home but they need some help—they are knocking down our doors.”
The demand is the main reason the academy moved last month from its former location next to the Locust Grove post office to a space that’s 2.5 times larger, off State Route 20 in the shopping center with the Exxon gas station. The training center is open six days a week and when there are more students than its three CNA classes can accommodate, overflow evening classes are scheduled. That happened twice this summer, Ortega said.
The academy also offers classes for medication and personal care aides and caregiving basics.
Many of the students, who talked with potential employers and gave free blood pressure checks to residents, are interested in being caregivers for the same reason Ortega started the academy.
They’re motivated by personal experiences.
Aleksa Shoemaker helped her grandmother take care of her grandfather, who had a feeding tube, whenever she visited.
“He just kind of inspired me to work with people in need and kind of led to where I’m at today,” she said, adding she won’t have trouble finding a job. “The medical field is a constantly hiring environment, so many people here are in need. It’s a job that’s in very high demand.”
Bailey Clements had planned to become a registered nurse and was in college last year when the pandemic began. But as the classes went on, she “wanted to be hands on” working with patients so she switched to the CNA class. Like her classmate Mikeesha Henderson, she’d like to start as a home health care worker, advance to a nursing home and eventually become a registered nurse and work in a hospital.
Helanna Shaw said her “heart grew” after she had her daughter, Kaia, two years ago.
“I came to realize that everyone is someone’s child and that’s honestly why I think being a CNA is a great job. You have to care for people and take care of them like they’re family,” said Shaw, who also works nights as a bartender and applies some of the same thought processes to both fields. “Everyone’s a person. You don’t know what they’re going through and you don’t know their stories.”
The need for caregivers was keen, long before COVID-19 arrived, said Sheila Mathis, an academy instructor who worked her way up the health care ranks, starting as an aide who worked in peoples’ homes. She just completed her doctorate as a nurse practitioner.
“The need has just grown that much more since the pandemic,” she said.
Families who saw the way COVID-19 tore through long-term care facilities during the early months of the pandemic, wreaking havoc and death, have tried to keep their loved ones at home and find help with their care.
When they contact Ortega, she passes them along to Mathis’ husband, Derrick, who also has an office in the academy and directs Veritas Training and Consulting Services, which refers potential caregivers to families.
He sees continued growth for his business—and caregiver training—as 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day, according to the AARP. The number of older adults will more than double in coming decades and represent one of every five people by 2050, the AARP estimates.
Derrick Mathis said a lot of nurses and caregivers left the field when the pandemic begin, perhaps because they were close to retirement age and had concerns about COVID-19 and their own exposure.
Others with young children “had to make some hard decisions” about their care last year as schools went to virtual classes, said Jenette Riggan, resident care coordinator at the newly opened Trinity Senior Village in Locust Grove. “It imposes quite the burden on the parent, particularly on women because more often than not, you see women in this field.”
Trinity is an assisted living facility that also plans to provide care for those with memory issues. Trinity is trying to fill its staff openings and has seen an influx of potential applicants who have left other jobs because of COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Trinity “strongly encourages” employees to get vaccinated, but does not currently have a mandate, Riggan said.
Visiting Angels, which sends health workers into the homes of seniors, is in the same position, said Cathy Lewis, recruiting director. It doesn’t mandate vaccines, either, but because 95 percent of clients want to be seen by workers who are fully vaccinated, she said, “It’s going to get to the point where we’re not going to be able to hire people who are not vaccinated.”
She offered a glimpse of encouragement, that in the last two to three months—perhaps as in-person classes have resumed—more people have returned to their jobs.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that in our industry, people want to get back to work, get back to feeling like they’re making a difference,” she said.