Blog November 03, 2017

Stories From the Field: EWA Intern Willard West

My first experience with caregiving came when I was eight years old. At the time, my grandmother had lung cancer which had spread to the rest of her body, including to her other vital organs. Even then, I remember it being clear to me that she was in the end-stages of her life. My family was fortunate enough to have the means to provide her with good quality care, including having an in-home hospice nurse to take care of the difficult tasks, like bathing her, where medical training was helpful, if not vital, in making sure that my grandmother did not get injured during what had once been her daily activities.

Beyond what we would’ve expected as her normal duties was where my grandmother’s hospice nurse truly shined. She played games with me to shield my mind from difficult decisions and my eyes from ugly sights. She comforted my grieving mother and grandfather. She explained exactly what she was doing to help my grandmother, so that we could replicate that aid overnight, if needed. She coached my family through the stages of death that were unfolding in front of us.

Most of us know what the experience of a death in the family is like; after all, aging and death are inevitable. When it is your loved one slipping away from you, it’s like there is an elephant sitting on your chest. The pressure of those days, weeks, or months is so intense that you feel like you’re abandoning your dying family member if you step away for even one minute. In-home hospice smoothed over the biggest potholes in my family’s caregiving journey. We were privileged to have that level of care for my grandmother, especially because my grandparents lived in Eagle Grove, a rural community in North-Central Iowa.

In underserved rural areas, caregiver support and quality geriatric care can be hard to come by. Geriatric Workforce Education Programs (GWEP) like the one at the University of Iowa are vital to ensuring that the rural health care workforce is trained in geriatrics. The University of Iowa’s three-year, $2.5 million GWEP grant is being used not only to provide clinical training in geriatrics to nursing and medical students, but also to create and promote innovative techniques for incorporating eldercare education into primary-care practices and community-based services and supports. The program has also introduced online distance learning tools for those employed in the geriatrics workforce.

The Geriatric Workforce and Caregiver Enhancement Act, introduced by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D–IL), Doris Matsui (D–CA) and David McKinley (R-WV), would increase the funding for GWEP from its current level of about $39 million to $51 million per year. This modest increase in funding would allow at least 8 more communities to provide important training for the workforce and caregivers. Everyone deserves access to the level of care that was afforded to my grandmother and the rest of my family. By increasing GWEP funding, we can both provide better, more accessible care for the older adults in our lives today, and prepare a highly-trained geriatrics workforce for the future—an improvement that nearly every single American will reap the benefits of.


Willard West is currently interning at the Eldercare Workforce Alliance and is in his second year at American University majoring in journalism.