As one of the few people who still watch sitcoms on television, I continue to be fascinated by the willingness of the producers of these shows to explore issues that don’t often arise in political debates.
One example is the CBS comedy Bob Hearts Abishola, which has a number of important messages for elected officials about healthcare, immigration and aging. Unfortunately, what the show is telling us goes against what our politicians believe people want to hear about these issues.
The premise of this sitcom is that a sock factory owner (Bob) suffers a heart attack and falls in love with his cardiac nurse (Abishola), who happens to be an immigrant from Nigeria. The plot thickens when Bob’s mother suffers a stroke and Abishola takes on a nursing role in addition to her work at the local hospital.
If you move beyond the unlikely romance and whimsical nature of Bob’s dysfunctional siblings, the show reveals a situation countless families face. An aging parent is suddenly incapacitated. The family decides to take care of her at home. They quickly become overwhelmed and must seek outside help to make their plan work.
In real life, of course, the eldest son didn’t fall in love with a nurse, leaving most families with a difficult search in a care system that can be difficult to navigate. In many cases, it is extremely difficult to find someone to relate to in a crisis situation, and finding someone for a family can only be a temporary solution.
As our population ages, we will need more caregivers, but where will we find them? This chart of the US Census Bureau’s quarterly labor force indicators, showing the composition of the healthcare and social services workforce in the Pittsburgh metro area, paints a bleak picture (in conversation with Joe Angelelli, world-class gerontologist who continues important work on aging issues in western Pennsylvania for bringing this to my attention).
It shows that the demand for these workers has increased significantly over the past 25 years. But labor force growth is affecting workers aged 55 and older — and these workers are aging rapidly from a job that is incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally.
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Meanwhile, younger people are not flocking to this career in droves. And why should they? It is not an easy task and it takes a person with a strong commitment to help others. But even for those with an inclination for this type of work, the salary it pays makes it a questionable choice.
Many of those in need of care have lower incomes and are eligible for Medicaid assistance. However, elected officials have refused to provide the funds necessary for Medicaid to pay decent wages for direct care workers. In Pennsylvania, the General Assembly believes that maintaining our regressive tax system is more important than properly compensating nurses to make the profession more competitive with other professions.
Which brings us back to Bob Hearts Abishola. It’s no coincidence that the subject of Bob’s affection is a nurse from another country. As the employment picture in the United States continues to generate more job openings than people who can fill those positions, hospitals and other medical facilities in other countries are hiring.
Qualified nurses are in high demand and the hospital where Bob received his care has undoubtedly gone to great lengths to get Abishola to fill a needed position. And she was available to help care for Bob’s mother.
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But most home health care agencies don’t have the resources to recruit caregivers in other countries. And too many elected officials, who do not provide the resources to make nursing a decent paying profession for workers in the United States, are working hard to prevent immigration and bias the United States population toward immigrants.
The unfortunate fact, of course, is that our history shows that it takes little persuasion to turn many people in the US against those in other countries.
In this time of changing demographics, we simply cannot continue to refuse to recognize the true cost of caring for our elderly population while belittling those from other countries who come to the United States to fill the growing gap in our workforce.
Network sitcoms like Bob Hearts Abishola have a thoughtful but lighthearted message to convey. But to truly reflect the reality of our care and immigration situation, this show may have to turn into tragedy if we continue on our current path.