Currently, there’s the Peace Corps for U.S. volunteers looking to make a socioeconomic difference abroad. Soon, there might be something for prospective caregivers looking to make a difference at home.

In the midst of the dire caregiver crisis plaguing the home care industry, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) is now working to establish a “caregiver Peace Corps,” a new government program meant to mobilize volunteers to serve America’s aging population.

ACL is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The possibility of a national caregiver Peace Corps officially emerged in September, when the ACL issued a $3.8 million grant to the Oasis Institute in a cooperative agreement to establish the National Volunteer Care Corps.

The Oasis Institute is a St. Louis-based national education organization for older adults. 

“We received our funding and direction from Congress in our 2019 appropriation,” Greg Link, director of the ACL’s office of supportive and caregiver services, told Home Health Care News. “Congress recognized the growing demand for services and supports to help older persons, persons with disabilities and their [family] caregivers, and felt that a volunteer program could assist.”

In addition to the Oasis Institute, the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Altarum Institute and the Caregiver Action Network are also partners in the program.

Broadly, the first-of-its-kind program from ACL is designed to place volunteers in communities to aide family caregivers and assist older adults in maintaining their independence. Specifically, volunteers would provide non-medical care and support.

The program has two main focus areas, according to Link.

The first: to improve the nation’s overall capacity to support volunteer programs that are non-medical in nature to assist older adults. The second: to advance innovative models. 

Though the program has drawn comparisons to the Peace Corps, a popular U.S. government-run volunteer program that provides a range of services abroad, Link is quick to shoot down this comparison, pointing out differences in scope and execution.

“If you look at the structure of the Peace Corps, it’s incredibly large,” he said. “The Peace Corps, I think, had a budget of $410 million in 2018 to implement their program. The [National Volunteer Care Corps] is just under $5 million. So from the scope alone, it’s a very different program.

The Peace Corps budget request for 2019 was $396 million, federal documents show.

Additionally, the National Volunteer Care Corps isn’t set in stone. At the moment, it’s a demonstration program where the ACL funds the Oasis Institute to award sub-grants to communities around the country to test different models of volunteer programming and support.

“It’s typically small, localized programs,” Link said. “Nothing like the Peace Corps.”

Home care impact

On one hand, the move to establish the National Volunteer Care Corps comes at a time when most home care companies struggle to recruit and retain compassionate, qualified workers. Creating a volunteer-based program could siphon prospective employees away from those companies.

On the other hand, the demand for home care services is so high that many agencies often have to turn down clients. A caregiver Peace Corps could provide more options for older adults where access to care is scarce. 

Furthermore, with the median monthly cost of full-time home care coming in at $4,290 per month, home care isn’t always affordable. Sending government-approved volunteers into the home could open up long-term care doors for low-income seniors.

Although there are several possible pros and cons for the home care industry, the National Volunteer Care Corps program is currently receiving positive reception from providers.   

“Initially, this concept is one we would have a high interest in pursuing, supporting, and we strongly believe our entire home care industry would take the same or very similar stance,” Jeff Bevis, CEO of FirstLight Home Care, told HHCN. “If done effectively, a National Volunteer Care Corps would be a new, creative way to help us all promote the need for quality home care, as well as serve as a solid training ground for even more caregivers to help us … meet the growing demands of an aging population for decades to come.”

It’s unlikely the program will negatively impact home care providers in any way, Bevis said, especially in terms of decreasing the pool of available caregivers.

In fact, it may have the oppositive effect, he noted.   

“If it is done with a high-quality focus of requirements and solid training, the formation of a National Volunteer Care Corps would not put a dent in business,” Bevis said. “Our expectation is it would actually increase the pool of available caregivers by encouraging and increasing more of our population to see caregiving as a true occupation and bona fide career development opportunity.”

Cincinnati-based franchise company FirstLight provides companion, personal and dementia care services across more than 254 locations in 34 states.

Home Instead Senior Care President and CEO Jeff Huber similarly embraced the program.

“Without knowing a lot about it yet, I think it’s a wonderful idea to create a dedicated care corp,” Huber said. “I’m very supportive, in general, to the idea of dedicated service, particularly in the area of aging. There is a vast need to support our aging population, and young people can learn so much from a service opportunity [and] from our seniors.”

Home Instead Senior Care is an Omaha, Nebraska-based provider of in-home care services with over 1,000 independently owned and operated franchise offices worldwide. With more than $1.77 billion in systemwide sales, the franchise company recently earned a spot on the Top 200+ ranking from Franchise Times.

As the program continues to move forward, home care providers will have a clearer view of how the National Volunteer Care Corps will take shape and what role it will play in relation to the industry at large.

For now, the qualifications for who would be receiving this care and the volunteers of the program are still in the works.

“Congress did not specify the types of seniors that would be served, nor did Congress specify the types of individuals that could be caregivers,” Link said. “It really is about the local programs — these will identify a need for volunteer caregiver support and then work to fill that niche in those communities.”

All in all, the program may not be the sole answer to the ongoing caregiver shortage, but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, according to Link.

“The ACL sees this program as an opportunity to identify and fill gaps in communities where there is perhaps less of a workforce or programs to assist family caregivers and older adults,” he said. “We also see this as an opportunity for the volunteers who wind up participating to learn skills that they could use to pursue a more formal type of employment, such as with a home care provider.”

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