OTTAWA — Conditions in long-term care are breaking the people who staff nursing and retirement homes, leading to worse care for the vulnerable seniors who live there, the head of the Canadian Support Workers Association said.
About 82 per cent of the more than 6,800 COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been linked to long-term care, shining a harsh light on an industry that was already in crisis.
Miranda Ferrier, president of the association, said she read the military reports about cases of abuse and neglect in Ontario and Quebec long-term care homes with the same disgust and anger as other Canadians.
Military members called in to help homes with COVID-19 outbreaks witnessed some staff seemingly ignoring residents' cries for help for up to two hours, and force-feeding residents to the point of choking, along with many other medical and professional problems.
While Ferrier said there is no excuse for that behaviour, there are reasons for it. Personal support workers are breaking under a neglected system, she said.
"I'm a (personal support worker) too and I worked in long-term care for years, and I'm broken," Ferrier said.
Another former Ontario personal support worker, who now works as a long-term care nurse, said the massive workload means she is forced to choose which residents will be neglected.
She spoke to The Canadian Press on the condition she be granted anonymity due to fear of facing repercussions at work.
"Just to make it through the shift you have to dehumanize the people," she said. "I have to walk past this person who's yelling and try not to let it get to me."
She said she and her co-workers try to do their best every day but it's hard to look at herself knowing that she didn't get to everyone.
"You feel like you're drowning all day," she said.
Many people have pointed the finger at support workers for the conditions in the homes, and Ferrier said she's received several calls along those lines in recent days. But those people don't understand that the workers are also victims, and have been for a long time, she said.
"They have no idea what's going on in those homes. It's totally unfair. I just think it's totally unfair and it just makes me sick," she said.
The profession is completely unregulated, workers are underpaid and typically underprepared for the huge workload, risks and mental, emotional and physical exhaustion associated with the job, she said.
"Many of them have developed post-traumatic stress disorder because of the load in long-term care, even pre-pandemic," she said.
Statistics from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board show support workers were six times more likely to be injured on the job than a police officer or firefighter in 2017, she said.
There's no official accreditation needed to become a personal support worker. Most enter the homes having completed a one-year certificate program, eager to help people, but that's difficult to do with a ratio of as many as 12 residents to one worker.
This is to say nothing of the lack of benefits and job security that has workers trying to cobble together enough hours at several long-term care homes to make a living.
That makes it hard to recruit people to the job.
"You get what you pay for, unfortunately," she said.
It's difficult to gather information about who these workers are, but the University of Alberta's Translating Research in Elder Care program estimates many are immigrants or people of colour, and the jobs are overwhelmingly staffed by women.
The federal and provincial governments have stepped in to provide temporary wage increases to long-term care workers who have suddenly been deemed essential during the pandemic, but conditions have far from improved, Ferrier said.
The Canadian Support Workers Association has been trying to shine a light on the issues for years, and has called for those workers to be licensed, regulated and accredited as a step toward fixing long-term care.
Ferrier said she is now in talks with the Ontario government to create some kind of recognized regulatory body for personal support workers, but can't say if or when the change will come.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2020.