Why It’s Hard to Be a New Nurse in Home Health

It’s certainly no secret that elder care providers of all stripes have trouble finding and retaining solid talent. But home health and home care companies have the added detriment of a largely solitary workplace environment, which can make it even more difficult for operators to convince new recruits that a patient’s home is the best place for them to work.

That’s why the team at Ecumen—a non-profit senior housing and care company based in Shoreview, Minnesota—decided to forge partnerships with local colleges, including the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul. Nursing students from St. Catherine’s, for instance, work in a variety of care settings at Ecumen, which offers a wide range of services from independent living to home care to skilled nursing.

The goal is to demystify the elder care industry and show the latest generation that working in home health might not be what they expect—and perhaps find a few folks who look to in-home care as a personal calling.

“We’re working really hard on the home care piece, which is where we see the future,” Shelley Matthes, the company’s senior director of quality improvement and resource utilization, told Home Health Care News. “We’re going to have to get very innovative for how we develop that. It’s hard to be a new nurse in home care.”

Unlike their peers at brick-and-mortar care facilities, where nurses and other care staff can bounce ideas off of each other and commiserate over successes and troubles, home health and home care workers find themselves largely alone, spending days with little sense of camaraderie. And that’s a problem for the newest nurses, who may feel intimidated and discouraged without a support network.

In turn, that becomes a problem for home health and other long-term care (LTC) providers. A recent LeadingAge study found that 30.6% of surveyed LTC firms identified registered nurses as the most difficult position to fill, with 22.2% naming licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) as the hardest to find. That’s going to pose a significant issue for providers going forward: The same study estimated that LTC operators will need 73% more registered nurses and 70% more LPNs to accommodate demand by 2030. By that same year, LeadingAge estimates that care providers will have to boost total staff by 2.5 million people.

A little nudge

To help develop the next class of caregivers, Ecumen also received a grant to encourage student nurses to consider a career at rural facilities, which Matthes said account for most of Ecumen’s footprint. Under that program, called Ecumen Scholars, students gain hands-on experience and learn about the potential advantages of working with seniors.

“There are plenty of people who want to go into gerontology, and sometimes it takes a little convincing and exposure for others,” Matthes said.

For Matthes, the connection is personal: When she first graduated from nursing school, she had her heart set on a job as a labor and delivery nurse, but high competition for those positions eventually led her to a position in elder care. Like many in the field, she initially thought she’d spend a year before moving on to other settings, but soon fell in love with the work.

“There’s so much value in it,” Matthes said. “It’s not just a short-term fix. You develop relationships.”

Written by Alex Spanko