In a red brick rambler in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., Onether Lowery begins her daily shift as a caregiver. She skillfully helps 86-year-old Rosalie Lewis into her electric wheelchair, holding her from the back, then bending over to ease her down.
It's an impressive feat: Lowery herself is 80 years old.
"My mother, she was 89 when she passed away," Lowery says. "I took care of her and I just fell in love with older people. I get along with them very well."
As America ages, its 2.5 million home health workers are graying right along with the clients they care for. And by all accounts, these older workers are especially well suited to the job.
Lowery is proud of how she can patiently coax clients to eat — even when they don't feel like it — how her experience helps her sense what they need. She used to care for Lewis' sister as well. At one point, the sister needed extra help, and Lowery says an agency sent younger caregivers.
"Well, she would always tell me when they wasn't around that they didn't do anything, not unless she asked them to do it," she says. "But me, I see things and I do it."
As a whole, home health aides are largely female and far older than women in the general workforce. The Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute says more than a quarter of aides are 55 or older, a share that's expected to rise to a third by 2020.
"A number of our clients will ask for a more 'mature' worker," says Marla Lahat, who heads Home Care Partners in Washington, D.C., the agency that employs Lowery. In this case, "mature" means "older."
"Sometimes they're a little bit afraid of the younger generation," she says, "and they know that a worker that's closer to their age is somebody that they feel more comfortable with and more trusting."
And in an industry where turnover is high, Lahat says, it's older workers who tend to stay in the job.
"I like to work with the older people 'cause they need you so much more," says
Queen Cook, a 75-year-old caregiver who's been with Home Care Partners for nearly four decades. She says she's careful to listen to clients — not talk too much — to figure out how they're feeling.
"I have a passion for what I do, and I've been doing it so long," she says. "I pretty much know how to deal with personalities a little better than the younger generation would. That's the way I feel."
As they age, some health aides do hit physical limits. Lahat says she's happy to work around it, finding a client without too many stairs, or who doesn't weigh too much, to cut down on heavy lifting.
So does Cook have any aches or pains?
"Oh, come on, we all have arthritis now!" she laughs. "But you work with it. Get your omega-3, take your exercise and you're good to go."
In Maryland, Lowery makes Lewis the same breakfast she does every day: coffee, toast, a fruit cup and scrambled eggs. Lewis says it's wonderful that she and her caregiver are so close in age.
"I feel like she's a member of the family," she says. "And she can still move around like she's 16 years old."
But, of course, she's not. Lowery says her grandkids have been after her to retire. Yet even at 80, she keeps putting in 40 or more hours a week.
"I don't have anything to do at home," she says. "You know I can't stand looking at the four walls."
As long as she feels good, Lowery says, she'll keep taking care of others.
This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.