PSW shortage a provincial and personal issue
Posted: February 12, 2020
(February 11, 2020)
By: Rev. David Shearman, Owen Sound Sun Times
In the last few months, with my late father needing more care, we began to investigate options for his retirement home. Where he was living had a waiting list of up to five years for a long term care bed.
In the course of exploration we learned first-hand of the crisis in long term care in Ontario. There is an acute shortage of long-term care workers, called personal support workers, or PSWs, in this province.
My father was moved to palliative care before we went further in our exploration, but what I learned was surprising.
We could hire PSWs from an agency, over and above that provided by home care services. The cost would be several thousand dollars a week. If workers did not show up or were sick, the family was responsible for filling in the gaps. It was not an ideal situation at all.
This is just one small aspect of a long-term care crisis in Ontario. It is a crisis that will not be easily or quickly fixed.
Earlier this month the Ontario Health Coalition released the results of a study commissioned by the union Unifor on the shortage of PSWs in Ontario. Taken from a series of focus group type meetings with facilitated discussion topics, it paints a picture of a health sector in crisis. There are not enough PSWs to meet the need. They are not well paid. They have huge responsibilities and are often subject to physical abuse by those they are caring for.
The report, available on line at the Ontario Health Coalition website, makes worthwhile reading. It is clear, direct and proposes remedies which could be implemented by all partners in the health care system, both public and private.
It begins with adequate funding for the long term care system, knowing that such funding has to compete with other priorities.
Included is the recommendation for clearly focussed and targeted human resource strategy, to ensure adequate wages, benefits and retention of workers.
Improved training is also part of the recommendations. Tuition costs alone can run to $5,000. Add transportation and child care and you have a cost barrier with guaranteed student debt on graduation, to be paid off at little more than minimum wage.
Another part of training is the recognition that the work can be hard and physically demanding. Injuries are not uncommon.
The method of teaching was also under scrutiny. Watching a video, which is a major component of some courses, has to be integrated with real world mentoring by experienced PSWs so students can learn best practices in real world settings.
Staffing shortages are endemic in long-term care. I have heard anecdotes of new PSWs being given full responsibility for 30 residents overnight with no one else in the building. There was no way to take breaks, go to the washroom or even eat.
The media came in for criticism, too. The negative stories about lack of care have given PSWs the reputation as cold, uncaring people. I want to make it clear that nothing is further from the truth. But given the issues involved, someone is always blamed. The sensational stores are, I believe, the exception and not the rule. But they diminish the reputation of the work of a PSW and the worker.
The Ontario Health Coalition report offers solutions, not blame. It seeks acceptance of responsibility across all sectors, not that it can be only fixed by throwing government money at the problem.
If we truly want to honour our fathers and mothers, which is what the fifth of the Ten Commandments calls us to do, the crisis in long term care has to be addressed in a comprehensive and integrated way. That has to start now.
I am also speaking out of pure self-interest. I will probably need these services in a few years. In some way, it is all about me and you and all of us. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound.