Canada's Personal Support Workers
Army of angels: Personal support workers
"For many people, their home is their most prized possession. Even if they don't own it, it's their reason for being," says Nicola Morris, director of operations with CanCare Health Services Inc., a provider of personal support and homemaking services.
Martha Russel of Integracare agrees. "Change is a challenge for them," says Russel, who started her private nursing service when an elderly relative needed a companion. The relative spent her days knitting squares for comforters for homeless people, despite her failing eyesight. Her companion helped her sew them together. Later, the companion was able to help Russel's relative stay on in her home despite failing health.
Home Care Agencies with Personal Support Workers
Studies abound that prove that the elderly thrive and survive longer if they can stay in their own homes, says Sue Coke, vice-president of operations in Eastern Canada for the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). "Home care is more than just bathing," Coke says. "We have to keep [the elderly] safe. They need a clean and a clear environment. They need to be fed and get good nutrition. The things we need to do [for them] are not that big."
Lydia Monaco, who is neighbourhood services unit director at St. Christopher House, says that often all it takes to prolong and/or improve a life is for someone to do "the simple, basic routine things of living we take for granted - watering plants, picking up the mail."
Making all this happen is a small army of angels known professionally as Personal Support Workers (PSWs). Some are employed at not-for-profit organizations such as St. Christopher House in inner-city Toronto, others by any of the 30 VON branches in the province. Since 1996, they might also work for private agencies such as Russel's Integracare or CanCare, the agency that was started in 1972 as a child-care operation by Angela Morris.
In Ontario, home health care is all overseen by the province's 43 Community Care Access Centres (CCACs) - six are in Toronto - that act as gatekeepers for all the personal-care and homemaking services done by PSWs. The CCACs put out contracts, which various organizations bid on. About 60 per cent of the contracts have been awarded to private, for-profit agencies and the rest to not-for-profit agencies.
What really makes this system work are the PSWs themselves. Taught everything from orthodontic care and cleaning catheterization tubes to how to bathe a client, most are women and all are certified as PSWs or Health Care Aides.
And most have huge hearts. Nadia Parkins, 32, has looked after many clients during the five years she's been with CanCare. She reads a son's e-mails to one woman. She listens, and laughs in all the right places, as another woman tells the story - again and again - of how she met her second husband. She regularly gives one client a foot massage. A fourth she has to coax into having a shower, a feat she accomplishes with good humour.
"Just to have a cup of tea with them, it helps a lot," Parkins says. Because she's in their homes, "I can take a little extra time. Quite often, it's like having a friend over for them."
She knows they wait for her. "The little old ladies," she says, "they sit at the window. They are waiting for you."
Parkins studied nursing in her native Jamaica for two years and although PSWs must not administer medical aide, Parkins's quick thinking and cool head have saved more than one client's life.
She knew what to do the morning she found a client on the floor. Parkins's nursing training kicked in - "she'd had a mini stroke. I knew the signs," she says. Parkins knew to leave the woman on the floor. She phoned 911, then CanCare, then the family. She gathered the woman's medications and health care cards to give to the ambulance attendants. Then she went to the hospital with her client. "I want to make sure they are okay until the family members get there," she says.
Elaine Haye, 48, also knows what it's like to almost lose a client. She arrived to one woman's house one morning to find the woman slumped over in her chair. The woman's companion panicked. It was up to Haye to feel for a pulse, call 911 and explain to the ambulance attendants the woman was diabetic.
An employee of CanCare for six years, Haye has clients who speak little or no English but she says that doesn't stop them from communicating. "They smile and we laugh and if they want me to get something for them from the store, they just point to what they want," she says.
About half of CanCare's clients don't speak English, which is why the service has staff members who can speak 27 languages.
Haye says she loves her job. "Not like, love," she emphasizes. A mother of three, Haye lost her own mother 10 years ago. She says her job helps her because what she couldn't do for her own mother, she can do for somebody else's.
"When you do something for people and you see their countenance light up..." she says thoughtfully, her voice trailing off. "My client told me this morning that she loves me."
Personal Service Workers make home health care a viable alternative to settling into a retirement home in Canada.