How to Become a Home Care Assistant

Overview

By Kelli Hansen, RN
Personal care aide helping an elderly woman get used to her walker

Home care assistants serve a vital role in providing much-needed assistance to the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill populations within our communities. They care for patients who independently are unable to maintain good hygiene, proper nutrition, and a clean living space. They may also assist with daily activities and recreation if needed by the patient.

“Home care assistant” is often a generalized term used to refer collectively to two different branches of assistants: personal care aides and home health aides. Each branch varies in job function and responsibilities.

Home health aides (HHAs) help patients with personal necessities like dressing, bathing, and hygiene needs. By assisting with housekeeping and other IADLs (instrumental activities of daily life) like cooking and laundry, HHAs enable clients to live safely in their own homes, greatly improving their quality of life in the process. Aides may have to document the patient’s condition and the care that they provide, along with any problems encountered during care, submitting this report to a supervisor. In some cases, HHAs also facilitate transportation and leisure activities for clients. Depending on the state regulations, they may be able to take vital signs, give medications, and perform basic wound dressing changes as needed.

Personal care aides assist patients with self-care and everyday tasks as well as provide some clients with much needed companionship. Personal care aides are sometimes known by other titles, including caregiver, companion, and personal attendant. They often perform tasks similar to those of home health aides; however, they cannot provide any type of medical-related services, whereas home health aides may be able to provide basic medical services depending on state regulations.

Work Environment

The word “home” within the title of home care assistant would suggest that the environment is primarily within an individual’s home, but this is not necessarily true. While most home care assistants do work in homes, their job functions may also be performed in a variety of provider settings such as retirement homes, community centers, residential group homes, and even nursing care facilities. An assistant may care for one individual or many, depending on the provider setting in which he or she works. The length of time during which a home care assistant may work with a client or clients varies from one day to multiple years. Work may include nights, weekends, and holidays depending on the requirements of the employer or the private client with whom the assistant is working.

Because of their work environments, home care assistants have a higher rate of injury than the national average. The work provided in this role can at times be very emotionally and physically demanding. Injury can occur when lifting a client, helping a client ambulate (walk), or simply helping a client to get in and out of a bed, chair, or shower. Clients may suffer from Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments that prove very challenging at times; the client may even become violent and aggressive. In some instances, personal care aides may be exposed to communicable diseases or infections when working with clients, depending on the nature of a client’s health issues.

Requirements

Education

No formal education is required to become a home care assistant. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), most home health aides have earned a high school diploma. This is true for personal care aides as well.

HHAs who aim to work in a certified home health or hospice agency are required to get formal training. In anticipation of this, preparatory classes are offered at some community colleges or through vocational/technical schools. To enroll in classes, students typically must be at least 18 years of age.

Training

Training requirements for home care assistants vary from state to state. Broadly, for both HHAs and personal care aides, there are circumstances in which no formal training programs are required and the budding professional receives all necessary training while on the job. This is often the case for personal care aides, who may be trained by a nurse, social worker or other aide to meet the specific needs of a particular client – for instance, if a client has cognitive impairment issues or has very specific dietary requirements.

However, formal training programs are required in some states and are available from vocational schools, community colleges, agencies and elder care programs. The duration of these programs varies based on varying state requirements.

An HHA who wishes to work with a home health agency will need to obtain formal training and pass a competency exam before becoming employed. Some states include additional required training above the nationally mandated minimum for working within an agency.

Furthermore, if a home health aide wishes to become certified, which can definitely improve job prospects, he or she must obtain a minimum of 75 hours of training in order to become eligible for certification.

Licensing and/or Certifications

Home health aides are not licensed, but many employers prefer or require that HHAs obtain certification. The National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) (http://www.nahc.org/) oversees certification. Minimally, in order to become certified, the candidate must complete 75 hours of training. In some states, the required amount of time is greater than 75 hours. You can refer to this map for HHA training requirements in your state. Upon completing the training, HHAs will have to take a standardized written test and correctly demonstrate the skills they learned during training.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Because they focus on direct patient care, home care assistants must possess patience, dependability, good interpersonal skills, and effective time management skills. They must be detail-oriented to follow specific rules and protocols. Home care assistants will be working closely with patients who may have severe pain or who may be experiencing emotional distress; they must be able to show sensitivity to patients’ emotions. It is important for the aide to be warm, compassionate, and emotionally stable. This role involves performing physical tasks such as lifting, turning and repositioning patients; an aide must possess a higher level of physical stamina and strength in order to be comfortable and safe performing those required tasks. 

Opportunities for Advancement

Personal care aides may start within their role and progress into the role of a home health aide by receiving additional health training. Once they advance into the HHA role, they may have more opportunities to advance even further into medical assisting, nursing or both. Many home care assistants with experience and a higher level of training seek out available opportunities to teach students or supervise new home care assistants.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a home care assistant, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Salary and Job Growth Projections

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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The annual mean wage reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is $21,380 for home health aides. Salaries range from a low of $17,040 up to a high of $29,560.

Meanwhile, the median annual wage for a personal care aide is $20,440, according to the BLS. The lowest 10% of wage earners make around $16,580 and the highest 10% earn closer to $27,910.

Job opportunities for home care assistants will be numerous from now well into the future; based on its statistic, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 48% employment increase for HHAs and a 49% increase in jobs for personal care aides between 2012 and 2022. This job growth is due mostly to more elderly people needing care and choosing to stay in their homes as long as possible. Some clients don’t require medical related assistance as much as additional assistance with household tasks or minor personal hygiene assistance. Hiring a home care assistant may be a cheaper option for many clients who wish to stay in their homes to avoid the increased expenses that occur with moving to a higher level of care, such as an assisted living facility or retirement home.

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