Heisung Lee recognized the need for a Korean-speaking personal assistant when her father was stricken with lung cancer. Her busy schedule meant Lee couldn’t always be there to help her father when he needed it.
“I needed to find someone who could help my father when I was out, and I couldn’t find any Korean caregivers,” said Lee, the director of the Korean Senior Center in Vienna, an outreach of the 4,000-member Korean Central Presbyterian Church, of which Lee is a member.
Through a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College’s Medical Education Campus (MEC) in Springfield and the Fairfax County Department of Health's Long Term Care Coordinating Council, Lee will see 31 Koreans graduate on Dec. 14 in a pilot program that will allow them to become licensed personal care assistants (PCA).
The 29 women and two men who are graduating will be able to join the workforce and offer in-home care to those of the same nationality.
“It has been an incredible project. They have been empowered to do this themselves,” said Ronda Hall, director of Continuing Education and Workforce Development for the MEC. The center hosted two 6-hour lab periods, which were part of the 40-hours necessary for PCA certification for the students.
LICENSED PCA’s are able to assist in caring for patients in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and institutions for the elderly or disabled. They can also offer in-home care with their PCA training. The Korean PCA’s who are graduating this month will be offered assistance in finding possible clients.
“We can connect the patient and the caregivers,” said Lee, who added that elderly Koreans who may need personal care can contact the senior center and be connected with a PCA.
Lee, a licensed nutritionist, who is a member of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC), first posed the possibility of PCA training specifically for Korean-Americans during one of the council’s meetings. Her main concern, said Lee, was making sure Koreans who needed in-home care received it from someone who could speak their language and who was familiar with Korean customs, including knowing the proper meals to prepare.
“When my father was sick, I didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “If there had been a Korean PCA, it could have been a lot better for him.”
In June 2004, the LTCCC signed a collaborative agreement with the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board to explore new ways of recruiting direct-care workers in Northern Virginia.
"We're really excited about it, because the community itself has identified a great need within their community, and they have taken a great amount of initiative to make this a success," said Susan Randall, a registered nurse and a member of the LTCCC. According to Randall, the LTCCC acted as a "broker," helping the Korean Senior Center achieve its goal of providing the training to interested members of the Korean community.
"When we look at a community like the Korean community, their culture is different from mainstream America, their language and customs are different," said Randall. "The care that is provided by direct-care workers is much more intimate, and there's a greater degree of trust when you have someone from your own cultural background."
Through her work with the senior center, which serves 400 elderly Koreans, and with a prayer group at her church, Lee said she came into contact with many whose stories were like hers. Once the program was approved, she posted a notice on the church bulletin board and immediately received responses from 40 people who were interested in the program.
“It was an overwhelming response,” she said.
THE CLASS started in early September and has met once a week on Fridays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Eight licensed nurses served as instructors, teaching both in English and Korean and using curriculum from the Northern Virginia Nursing School. Students learned basic skills like hygiene, health and safety and lifting techniques, as well as interpersonal skills for dealing with their patients and their relatives.
In their 12 hours of lab work, students learned practical skills like giving a bed bath and helping their patient walk with a walker. Although the class was administered in both English and Korean, Lee was adamant that the test be in English.
“She said, ‘We will teach you in Korean, but you must be [able to] read and be tested in English. You can look at this as an English lesson every time you come to class,’” said Hall.
The LTCCC is looking at the program as a model for other cultural communities within Fairfax County to be able to provide
"The needs are profound," said Randall. "This is a benchmark program for our community, and we're anxious to see how the community responds to these new workers. We're also anxious to see how we might work with other communities."
Randall said in order for other communities to come forward, they should express interest to the LTCCC, or even seek a representative on the council, which is appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
Lee said the age of students ranges from 30-65, many of whom have lived in America for many years but still find it difficult to fit in.
Many possible career paths are open for someone who has earned a personal care license. Hall said one possible next step is to earn a license for Skilled Care, which could involve administering medication. Other possible careers would involve further education to become a licensed nurse. According to U.S. Department of Labor figures, the home-care industry is expected to grow by nearly 56 percent in the next eight years, which means that many more opportunities will open for those in this class, and for the next class, scheduled to begin in the spring. Already, 15 people are on a waiting list for that class, said Lee.
“These people have been here a long time, but they aren’t assimilated into the mainstream of society,” she said. “Maybe working as a personal care assistant for several years, they can develop their careers.”