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Jarvis: The front-line health-care workers you don’t hear about

Posted: April 17, 2020

(April 16, 2020)

By: Anne Jarvis, Windsor Star

They are the other front-line health care workers, the ones you don’t hear about.

Personal support workers provide the most basic care for the most vulnerable people, feeding, toileting and bathing the elderly and severely disabled.

Yet for years we’ve been driving them from their jobs with low pay, few benefits, part-time hours and little respect.

Now suddenly, in the middle of the pandemic, we’ve discovered they’re essential.

The people we should have valued but didn’t — now we’re literally begging for them.

And still, we sent them into long-term care homes — where almost half of the more than 900 COVID-19 victims in Canada have died — without proper protection, and left them struggling to keep up.

The way we treat them says volumes about our regard for the elderly.

PSWs make up as much as 80 per cent of the staff at a long-term care home. They are the backbone of long-term care.

It’s a hard job — lifting, feeding those with difficulty eating, dealing with dementia.

There are never enough staff.

Virtually every shift, every day at every long-term care home is short-staffed, according to the Ontario Health Coalition.

Miranda Ferrier, president of the Canadian Support Workers Association, worked as a PSW for 11 years.

“I never worked a fully staffed shift,” she said.

Despite this, most PSWs are only part-time, so they need several jobs to cobble together a living — a practice that risks spreading infection among homes.

And some are treated “like absolute dirt,” said Ferrier, chastised for taking sick days, harassed to work on their days off, guilted into taking extra shifts.

For this, they are paid $17 to $23 an hour, with few benefits. Provincial funding for long-term care homes increased a measly one per cent last year.

Now, after losing more staff during the pandemic, some of those left are caring for as many as 25 to 40 people.

“Tons of overtime, a lot of doubles (double shifts),” said Ferrier. Days off? “There is no time for days off right now — unless they go off with COVID-19.

“When I say they’re operating in a battleground, I’m not kidding,” she said.

The most basic care is getting done, but little else.

Residents at Heron Terrace, where 10 residents and 10 staff are currently infected, used to get two or three baths a week. Now they get one.

There is a “more efficient menu” at mealtimes, meaning fewer choices and fewer foods prepared by hand.

“We’re trying to get the gentlemen shaved,” PSW Jennifer Cloutier said last week. “We got most of them done. Family were coming to the window. You try to make them presentable, but it’s hard.”

PSWs are not only physically exhausted, they’re mentally exhausted.

“They feel guilty,” said Cloutier.

It’s hard to not provide the care they believe residents deserve.

And, said Monique Langlois, an independent PSW working at a long-term care home here, “we’re scared.”

They’re afraid of contracting the virus, of infecting their families, of infecting their frail residents.

They’re afraid of not being able to help residents who fall ill.

Despite all this, there are small acts of great kindness.

Staff at Heron Terrace used their own phones to help Barb Rideout FaceTime with her 97-year-old mother, Connie Broyd.

“When she smiled, I knew she’d seen me,” said Rideout.

Rideout would come to the window of her mother’s room, and staff would open the blinds and move her mother’s bed closer.

The day her mother lay dying of COVID-19, the staff called Rideout, let her in, gowned and masked her and brought her to sit with her mother. They made her tea and offered her sandwiches.

“She had not been speaking for nearly a year,” Rideout remembered, “but she called out my name a couple of times, pulled my face down for a kiss and then placed my hands on her heart and slowly stopped breathing.”

Langlois knew she looked intimidating in full protective gear during an outbreak. So she put purple hearts on her face shield.

“You’ve got to use your imagination,” she said.

She used to help her grandmother care for her great-grandmother. She’d sit with her, braid her hair.

“I learned a lot about being a PSW from my grandmother,” she said.

Later, she helped care for her grandmother.

“It’s a call to duty,” she said of her job. “I hope someone will be there for me.”

Yet, when Unifor called on long-term care homes to pay PSWs an extra $3 an hour during the pandemic, only one here did, Heron Terrace.

It’s no wonder many PSWs have been leaving their jobs to work in factories, retail stores, even fast food restaurants.

“When you’re run off your feet, and you don’t have time to spend with your residents, it doesn’t feed your passion,” acknowledged John Scotland, CEO of Heron Terrace.

Ontario was to announce more money for long-term care staff Wednesday.

The question is, what will happen after the pandemic? Our population is aging. PSWs are essential all the time.

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