Safety Tips for Home Health Care

Finding a good home health-care aide is both challenging and essential. "You want someone who is organized, gentle, who has a sense of importance and demeanor, as well as a sympathetic attitude," says Mary St. Pierre, vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Home Care & Hospice. But you also need someone who has a clean background check and solid references. Searching for questions to ask your prospective home health-care provider? Look no further:

Is the agency licensed and accredited? Your home health-care aide should be part of an agency licensed by the state, says St. Pierre. Do not hire a caregiver through a nonlicensed agency. Contact your state department of health for a list of agencies they have licensed. Look for accreditations from organizations like Joint Commission, an independent nonprofit that accredits and certifies nearly 15,000 health-care organizations and programs in the United States.

How established is the agency? Research the agency at Home Health Care Compare, a service provided by Medicare that allows you to compare local home-care agencies on a variety of characteristics. Find out what services they provide, the number of patients served, as well as measures of their success with treatment, such as the percent who got better at taking their medication regularly or were short of breath less often.

What kind of background checks does the agency do? Don't just ask if the agency does a background check, get specifics on exactly what they check for. Some agencies may just run checks on elder and child abuse, says Pierre, but not on other criminal activities. Make sure that the provider you work with checks all aspects of their aides' backgrounds. You want your home health-care aide to have a spotless record.

What are the specifics of an agency's service? Aside from the larger questions about an agency's accreditation and licensing, you also need to dive into the details. Find out what procedures a provider has in place to handle emergencies. Are its caregivers available 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Also, will they be sending the same person each day or will it vary? Consistency is key to good care, but many agencies do not always send the same aide to the same patient. Make sure that yours is one that does.

Who are the references and how do they check out? Getting the references is crucial, but so is calling them. "Call references to determine whether in their previous employment they showed good judgment and were gentle in their approach," says St. Pierre. "Make sure they were conscientious in carrying out their responsibilities." Also, check in with some of the agency's other clients to see how pleased they are with its service.

What do you think of your provider? While it's definitely not the only question, it is a key one: do you and your family member, well, like your home health-care aide? Is it someone who you feel you could have a good working relationship with? "You're hiring someone to take care of your family member," says St. Pierre. "It has to be someone you're comfortable working with."

For more resources on hiring a home health care aide, the National Association for Home Care & Hospice maintains an extensive set of resources that are very helpful. The AARP also provides a brochure on selecting a caregiver.