I can still remember it like it was yesterday, I was 17 years old and knew that I wanted to help others as a vocation. I took the nursing program in Barrie and completed my first two semesters before realizing that in order to complete the program I would have to raise more funds. So I moved home to Lindsay to save up. Funny thing about being an 18 year old in college for many of us is that life skills — like budgeting — was not a strong point.
I decided to take the Personal Support Worker (PSW) program here at Fleming College which was a nine-month program, fairly economical and close to home. I was the only male PSW student in a group of 30 and it was sure hard to explain to my 19-year-old friends what I was learning in school. The program is both class studies and practical placements in the community (about 100 hours), and in facilities. After completing my long term care placement (about 150 hours) I truly wondered if I had chosen the right path as the idea of getting 11 to 13 residents up each morning before 8 am seemed so different from how I envisioned caring for seniors would be. However when a senior looks at you and says “thank you dear,” it keeps you coming back day after day. And most people who live into their 90s tend to have a great sense of humour so there was no shortage of laughs each shift.
After graduating and working as a PSW for four years I found that my lower back was constantly giving out and Tylenol and A535 were items that were always on the grocery list. As for many PSWs, both physical and mental burn out is a very real thing. And a great deal of PSWs strive to upgrade their schooling and bridge over to later become a Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) to lighten the physical load, but continue to serve just the same.
A PSW is one of the most underrated positions to hold. The wonderful caregivers out there are not only involved in the most unfavourable jobs of the day, but are also constantly experiencing grief associated with the loss of a beloved client or resident. We are all taught in school to try and not to get too attached to residents, but that’s hard to do after helping a senior with the most personal of care tasks for years, meeting their families, and doing anything required to make them comfortable.
All too often adult children of residents and clients have some very demanding tendencies, and rightfully so — it’s their loved one. But the front line team is often all they can see making PSWs and housekeepers a target for frustration. It can be a thankless job sometimes, especially when you are understaffed, which any PSW can tell you, happens frequently. The cooks of facilities are often criticized for meals, even though they are restricted by $4-7 per-person food budgets per day. And what most seniors don’t realize is that taste buds age with them, and at 90 years old it’s mostly salty and sweet foods that are tasted well and enjoyed. Facilities’ cooks can’t prepare meals with sodium so the food always tastes bland to a resident, but not as much to the 30-year-old cook. Later in life, as an administrator, 10 residents would come to my office to say it was the best meal yet, followed by another 10 who threatened to move out if it didn’t improve.
The home care sector for caregivers can also be a challenging place to work. Pets, habits, adult kids, and the physical set-up of the home can all offer challenges. Not to mention, PSWs in Ontario work in a climate that is not always suitable to drive to a client’s house at 7 am after two feet of snow fell the night prior. But whether it’s snowing or a summer day any PSW can tell you that it’s going to be 85 degrees in any senior’s home you enter, so bring an extra shirt to change into after you leave.
Keep these things in mind next time you run across a caregiver. Whether private or publicly funded, none of us do what we do for the money — and there is no such thing as an easy shift. We don’t even dare to win when we’re watching Wheel of Fortune with them for fear of wrecking a client’s night!