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How to become a caregiver

Learn about the differences between volunteer, non-medical and skilled caregivers, and which best suits your skill set. 

When deciding to pursue caregiving as a career path or even as a volunteer, it’s important to know that “caregiver” isn’t a blanket term for every kind of assistance. There are several different kinds of caregivers, and each one requires different skills – and in some case, certifications.

What is a caregiver?

When a senior wants to age in place but needs assistance with tasks around the home, loved ones may choose to add a caregiver to the team. This can be a neighbor or family friend offering volunteer care, or a paid professional, such as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or Medicare-certified home care nurse prescribed by a physician.

Determining which of the three kinds of caregivers – volunteer, non-medical, or skilled caregivers – is right for your individual background and skill set can be determined with a little research and an understanding of your personal strengths.

Becoming a volunteer caregiver

There are many non-profit organizations and hospices that rely on volunteer caregivers, and often offer specific training to those who wish to work for them. But if you know of an elderly neighbor or friend who may need assistance, you may find yourself offering your services in a less formal way. Often volunteer caregivers will be asked to spend a few hours with a senior each day, as this low-pressure situation can help ease him or her into the idea of having a caregiver without feeling demeaned or threatened.

As a volunteer, it’s important for you to set clear boundaries before you commit to volunteering. Consider drawing up a caregiver agreement to let the senior and his or her family and loved ones know exactly what you are able and willing to do. Make sure you have open lines of communication should either your situation or the senior’s care needs change.

Becoming a non-medical caregiver

Non-medical caregiver duties include providing personal care, respite care and companionship to both a senior and the family caregivers in need of assistance, and can include feeding, dressing, bathing, medication reminders, walking or transportation assistance, running errands and social support. A companion caregiver is focused on the needs of the elderly person and does not have a medical background.

It’s important to know that “companions” are not just a type of caregiver, but also a formal employment category recognized by the IRS. By the IRS definition, companions are focused on providing company to an adult or senior by chatting, playing games, taking walks or driving them to appointments. They can also help with light housekeeping and other duties. They can assist with personal care like bathing, dressing, and feeding as long as it doesn’t comprise of more than 20% of their total duties.

Caregiving training requirements differ from state to state. Many states recommend an eight-hour certification course but do not require it, while some require an eight- or ten-hour certification and others require no certification at all. Vermont is the only state that requires non-medical caregivers pass a state exam. Some states require background checks, and often homecare placement agencies provide the necessary training to meet any state requirements.

You can find a job as a non-medical caregiver either through an agency or independently. Non-medical caregivers usually make $15 to $25 per hour when hired through an agency, and most are paid at a higher rate to work weekends or holidays.

Becoming a skilled caregiver

Becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA) requires training, though the specific training is different in each state. However, all states regulate CNAs who work in nursing homes, and all states maintain a registry. Each state also sets standards for training and competency evaluation, though there is a federal minimum. They usually make slightly more than non-medical caregivers, though rates vary with location.

Some states set the training requirement at 75 hours (the federal minimum) and some set it at 120 hours. CNAs are usually tested on their ability to take blood pressure readings, put on compression stockings, or give partial bed baths. All CNAs need a high school diploma or GED, and training programs to become a CNA can usually be found at community colleges and trade schools. Make sure any program you consider is approved by your state’s nursing board.