Editor’s note: In writing this article, Roxanne Furlong interviewed Al DeGraff — author of Caregivers and Personal Assistants — who has employed hundreds of personal care assistants over the past 40 years. What follows is a hybrid mix of DeGraff’s ideas and principles and Furlong’s own advice from her personal experience with PCAs.
Of all U.S. full-time workers, personal care assistants have the highest rate of depression, according to a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Consider yourself lucky if you have a PCA who not only gives you the care you need and want, but who is also positive and cheerful.
Once we find a PCA who fits our needs and personalities, we can be proactive in keeping them happy and satisfied — and if they’re happy, we’ll be happy.
Here are the top 10 tips on how to hire, manage, and keep happy PCAs:
10. Money Does More Than Talk
You know the importance of a paycheck, so pay your PCA on a timely basis. If you’ve done the hiring, establish a weekly, bimonthly or monthly pay schedule. If you’ve used a hiring service, ask them to send you the checks so you can hand your employee their pay. Doing this gives you the upper hand and a strong image of being in charge.
9. Don’t Gossip
Don’t gossip or speak unfavorably of one PCA to another, and don’t reprimand one aide in another’s presence. Don’t initiate, tolerate, or contribute to gossip, don’t show favoritism and don’t allow your PCA to talk about their other consumers. Frankly and politely establish that this behavior is not wanted or acceptable. If the behavior continues, let them know that it can result in termination.
8. Be Organized and Safe
An organized, well-supplied and maintained work area and stocked cabinets will save time and contribute to efficiency and be less stressful for you and your PCA. Keep an inventory of medical, cleaning or cooking supplies where your PCA can checkmark them when supplies run low. On the next supply run, your PCA can take the list to stock up. DeGraff also suggests keeping all supplies where they are used — to save PCAs unnecessary steps and frustration. He urges keeping narcotic medications, cash, credit cards and other valuables in a small safe to eliminate any chance of theft. DeGraff learned the hard way that no matter how much you trust your PCA, keeping valuables in a safe eliminates opportunity and suspicion.
For errands, use cash or sign checks with the store name filled in — never use credit cards; verify receipts immediately.
7. Nip Problems in the Bud
Learn how to read your PCA’s tone of voice and body language to identify the presence of a problem — work-related or otherwise. You don’t need to hear all their personal problems or become a dumping ground, but you still can show compassion.
If your usually jovial or upbeat PCA is suddenly quiet or moody, ask if something is wrong – using a positive, caring voice. For those PCAs who begin to complain about personal problems, simply and gently tell them to let your home be a safe and positive place where they can leave their troubles at the door.
DeGraff suggests kindly asking: “Margie, is everything OK? You don’t seem to be yourself tonight” or “Matt, are you and I on good terms this morning? You’re very quiet and I’m concerned.”
6. Don’t Move the Finish Line
Be comprehensive when listing daily needs so your PCA knows what to expect when he or she walks through the door. Keep a complete list of tasks. Note extra duties when your PCA arrives so they can mark them off and plan their workday.
If you work from home and your routine is upset by phone calls, meetings or deadlines, let your PCA know upfront that during these times they can do light household chores, stock cabinets or run quick errands.
5. Be Nice
Even if you are having a bad day, be pleasant and you will avoid anger and stress for all involved. A morning workout routine or meditation will keep you fit and centered and help you vent anger or stress. “Picture coming to work to encounter a boss who’s angry or highly stressed,” DeGraff says. “We’d probably take it occasionally, but would look for another job if it became routine.” If you can’t avoid stressing out your PCAs, get some help.
4. Mind Your Manners
Treat your PCA as you want them to treat you. Provide clear and direct instructions to avoid mistakes, hurt feelings or frustration. “Please” and “thank you” go a long way. Be assertive but avoid certain behaviors, such as aggressiveness (“Why can’t you get this done on time?!”); passiveness (“It’d be nice if it got done some time”); and passive aggressiveness (“Well, somebody isn’t going to get paid if they don’t hurry”).
When a PCA mistakes a positive attitude for passiveness and begins to take advantage, lay down clear and concise ground rules to gain the upper hand. If you find any PCA to have an unsavory agenda, give them notice and act on termination, if needed.
3. Establish Respect: A Two-Way Street
DeGraff says it’s essential to earn and establish mutual respect. By respecting a PCA’s rights and showing that you genuinely care about them, you will get respect back. Stick to a routine, give them constant respect for their rights and allow them the right to refuse to do something that is against their values or morals.
2. Two are Better Than One
If you need several hours of service every day, it’s wise to have an alternative PCA to help with your routine. Having more than one PCA also allows you backup in the event of sickness, vacation time, resignation, or if a PCA is taking too much control or taking advantage of your good nature. DeGraff says having two or more aides helps in the new-hire process — one can train another and avoid job burnout.
1. Let Them Know You Appreciate Them
And the most important tip for keeping PCAs happy? Express routine appreciation. Says DeGraff: “Aides deserve two types of pay — monetary and appreciation. The Red Cross has thousands of volunteers who show fierce loyalty after receiving routine appreciation.”
Express appreciation only when you mean it and be sure it is clearly delivered and understood — and keep eye contact. Tell your PCA what you appreciate and why, and vary how often you express appreciation.
Follow these 10 tips and you will have PCAs who not only enjoy working for you but who will also take on nearly any task you ask of them.
Eight Sure-Fire Hiring Screening Tips
Beyond trusting your gut instincts when interviewing a potential PCA, there are sure-fire ways to screen job applicants to find those who will commit to a thorough job with a positive attitude. Al DeGraff offers his eight top screening tips that he uses to hire his own PCAs.
1. Recruit from local campus papers, if possible. DeGraff advertises for people to call and leave a voicemail to earn $8.50 to $10 an hour while learning about disability. Applicants do not need a medical background. You will train them.
2. Screen recorded messages and eliminate those that are questionable. You can eliminate about half the callers by their message or because they forget to leave a phone number.
3. During your initial callback, outline a comprehensive list of your routine and needs. One-third will screen themselves out.
4. Set up an interview for applicants so they can watch a routine with your current PCA. You’ll screen out another one-third when they don’t show up.
5. For those who attend training, explain the entire routine and discuss working guidelines and shifts. Allow for a Q-and-A and explain that your current aide will escort them out the door to answer any more questions they may have.
6. Ask them to call the next day if they want to be considered for the job. If they don’t call, they’ve screened themselves out.
7. For those who do call, consider their attitude and body language during the routine training. Did they watch eagerly and ask questions — or stand with their arms crossed away from the group? Stress that you are looking for a long-term employee, or give them a time limit.
8. Schedule them for an actual shift and have another PCA train them until they are comfortable on their own.
The Personal Care Attendant Guide: The Art of Finding, Keeping, or Being One, by Katie Rodriguez Banister.