Peggy Nixa works part-time as an in-home caregiver, but the Rochester woman knows she could easily devote every day of the week, full-time, and weekends, too, if she wanted - such is the unceasing demand for services like hers.
While leisure and hospitality jobs, such as servers and bartenders, have been hammered by the pandemic, the job of caregiver has flourished like few others.
The burgeoning demand for the work, particularly the in-home variety, reflects the aging of American society, but the profession is also getting a powerful boost from the pandemic.
The big reason: The children of elderly parents don't want to lose the ability to see their parents, given the pandemic-driven restrictions on visitors at assisted living centers and nursing homes. They also worry about the social isolation their parents could face in such settings.
"The interest in home care, in our experience, has soared because now it's a question: Am I going to be able to see mom and dad," said Michael Licatino, executive director of Home Instead, a franchise network that employs about 180 caregivers and serves 140 clients in Rochester and Mankato.
Licatino said his company is looking to fill an "immediate need" of 10 caregiver positions, "but this is an industry in which we never stop hiring. We're always looking for good caregivers, compassionate caregivers."
When the pandemic first struck last March, nursing homes and assisted living centers quickly instituted lockdowns to keep the virus away from their elderly populations.
The elderly, especially those in their 80s and 90s, run the highest risk of death if they contract the disease. Home Instead caregivers also serve residents in nursing homes, and the bans on visitors applied to them as well in the early months of the pandemic.
But the situation produced heart-wrenching stories of loneliness and social isolation suffered by many elderly residents in those care facilities. Some of the visitor restrictions have been relaxed, and caregivers have been allowed back into nursing homes.
Licatino said the inquiries he gets from people interested in Home Instead services have evolved over the past year. In the beginning of the pandemic, questions were mostly focused on "what we are doing to keep mom and dad safe." But as the pandemic has worn on, the focus has shifted to safety in the home to "how quickly can we start services."
In-home caregivers perform a variety of tasks. They prepare meals, assist with personal care and run errands. They might do light housekeeping duties, buy groceries or walk the client's dog. They are also an invaluable social outlet for the people they serve.
"I feel like I'm helping them," said Nixa, who has been a Home Instead caregiver for the past four years. "I'm helping them stay home instead of going to a care facility, because the majority of them do not want to leave their homes."
Nixa worked for AAA for three decades before retiring and become a caregiver. What originally piqued her interest in the work was a magazine article she read about caregiving. At first, she worried that her lack of medical training would be a hindrance to her entering the field.
"I wanted to do something that makes a difference for people," Nixa said. "But what held me back was my lack of medical training. But when I talked to the recruiter, she assured me they provide the training and everything."
Starting wages for caregivers hover around $13.25 to $14.75 an hour, a notch higher than Minnesota's minimum wage of $10 an hour for large employers.
Nixa calls caregiving the "most gratifying job." She can tell the difference she is making, she said, from the appreciation she gets from the people she serves.
"They are all smiles," Nixa said. "They are so grateful. They can't thank you enough."