As a home care worker, I’ve seen firsthand how vital these services are to the many seniors who rely on home care to live independently at home. Nine out of 10 people want to age at home, rather than move to a nursing home. Our state is already the oldest state in the nation, and it is continuing to age rapidly.

This month, Maine lawmakers have an opportunity to celebrate Older Americans Month by taking critical action in support of Maine seniors by taking action on a bill that would support those who need home care services, as well as the workers who provide such critical care. We need to act quickly to make aging at home a viable option for our state’s seniors.

On May 6, the Health and Human Services Committee of the Maine Legislature held a public hearing on several bills to support those who need in-home services. The demand for home care workers is needed more than ever, and those who testified — including hospitals, nonprofit care agencies, for-profit agencies, and home care workers — spoke of a crisis where agencies’ financial viability is at stake and home care workers, due to the low pay, can’t afford to stay in their chosen field. One provider talked of the more than 700 hours a week that went unstaffed and one person who had multiple sclerosis who, without home care, wouldn’t get out of bed to eat or bathe.

A quiet yet horrible crisis is now happening across our state.

Most of the testimony was for LD 1350, which would increase the reimbursement rate to providers of in-home direct-care services from $15 to $25 an hour. Of the increase, at least 85 percent must be used for wage increases and employee benefits, including health care and mileage reimbursements.

I worked for a home care agency from 1998 to 2003, and I was forced to be on MaineCare because we had no benefits with a pay rate that was just $7.71 an hour. Even after my “retirement” from the agency, I continued to organize with other home care workers and fight for fair wages and better working conditions. Because of our efforts, we managed to get our wages up to $9.00 per hour in 2006.

But still, nine years later, workers are stuck right around that level, with most workers making around $10 an hour.

When I was making $7.71 per hour 10 years ago, I had to work several care jobs in order to support my family. Several of my co-workers struggled with transportation issues. They were paid too little to have a car and were forced to reply on limited public transportation to get to clients’ homes.

Home care workers ensure the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our own families. Because of their dedicated work, our loved ones can remain in their own homes and age with dignity.

Home care is not a job that we do for the money. It’s not easy work and not for everyone, but there are so many things I love about the job. When I play a part in someone getting cured and released from a difficult health situation, it’s a good feeling and one that has helped keep me going all these years.

If we ignore the poor working conditions that cause care providers to be distracted and stressed due to their financial insecurity, we are compromising the care that people receive. Current staffing shortages and increased demand means that we need to do something now to attract and retain quality employees. After 60 years on the job, I am now paid a living wage by a private employer. My employer knows that by paying $15 an hour, he will get reliable, quality care. But not everyone can pay out of pocket, which is why the bill before our elected officials is so critical.

When I need a home care worker myself, I want my caregiver to be skilled. I want him or her to have dignified working conditions, including a living wage, benefits and the ability to provide for him or herself and family. For Older Americans Month, I hope that our lawmakers support LD 1350 to help show the true value of caregiving and promote dignity for workers and consumers alike.

Ted Rippy of Bangor is a home care worker and board member of Food AND Medicine.