Kimberly Marselas

In the last few months, nursing homes in Plattsburgh, NY, and Stillwater, MN, snagged some valuable new employees in a remarkably tough market.

Their secret recruitment tool? They’re not only employers but homes to beloved relatives of these part-time workers.

In Minnesota, Lisa Racine applied to be a food nutrition assistant so she could spend more time with her 87-year-old father, Harold. On shifts that accommodate her full-time job with a printing company, Lisa preps desserts, sets tables and delivers meals. When she clocks out, she gets to visit with her dad, a widower, and help him connect with other family members — including 16 grandchildren.

In New York, Cynthia Romano accepted the first position she could get back in November. She started as a member of Plattsburgh Rehabilitation Nursing Center’s kitchen staff but has since moved to the housekeeping team. Working in the building allowed her to see John, her husband of 31 years, who has Alzheimer’s disease. They could be together for small moments even as a COVID-19 outbreak again restricted visitation there this week.

Both women took these jobs out of desperation, essentially. They craved more meaningful contact with their loved ones, and outdoor and window visits weren’t really plausible during cold Northern winters.

But these kinds of gestures reported at nursing homes across the country this past year — and new workers’ willingness to stay on even after the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services lifted blanket restrictions early this month — should also open providers’ eyes to a possibly untapped talent pool.

No, the teenage grandchildren of residents won’t fill your need for, say, a weekend RN. But I’d bet plenty would fit the bill as the kind of “compassionate, dedicated, and personable” personnel Plattsburgh is looking for in its recent job postings. A mom returning to the workforce might find a new calling, given the chance to participate in a resident assistant program that can lead to temporary nurse aid certification. Or an empty nester could find joy in being an activities assistant for a few hours a week.

My very first non-babysitting job was in a local assisted living facility, doing the same kind of kitchen prep work that got Lisa and Cynthia into the employ of nursing homes.

But when my own grandmother lived in skilled nursing a few years later, the thought never crossed my mind to take a job there. Imagine the joy she might have felt, having me bring her favorite dessert (rice pudding) with dinner or popping in to say goodnight.

Those interactions and their influence on a resident’s quality of life alone make recruiting among family members a win-win proposal.

I also can’t help but wonder how many folks with less clear a career path than I had might discover new possibilities when given an opportunity inside a nursing home.

Cynthia Romano has bonded with fellow staff, who raved to local media about her ability to make her husband smile (behind his mask) with just her presence.

And Lisa Racine, who got vaccinated alongside her dad recently, told “Good Morning America” she very much intends to keep her job after seeing the need that exists at Good Samaritan Society in Stillwater.

“I really enjoy the other residents that live there,” she said. “They’re so sweet, and unfortunately, they’re not getting visitors, so I kind of am their visitors.”