On March 17, the Ontario government declared a state of emergency from COVID-19 – and that’s when Graham Bashford’s reality was turned upside down. Overnight, Bashford’s Castle Keep Retirement lost 40 per cent of its business. It then started to bleed 10 per cent per day after that, the “perfect storm,” as he calls it, that would take down his eight-year-old Lindsay company which had relied on a steady need for mobile senior care.
“You can lose so much business in the blink of an eye, but then all the operating expenses are still there,” he tells the Advocate.
That’s why Friday, April 17 will be the last day for Castle Keep, which had 33 team members before the state of emergency was called – largely personal support workers (PSWs). Now, the team is down to eight.
Castle Keep’s PSWs would visit residents of long term care homes or retirement homes for companionship or extra care, shop for seniors who were living independently, offer support to patients who were palliative, and help families struggling with the demands of aging parents.
“When we were no longer able to go into nursing homes, that was it for us,” says Bashford, which was the lion’s share of their work.
He fully understood the decision taken by the government – and supported it.
“Our model was tested for eight years,” he says, but the pandemic laid waste to the notion it could continue, as is.
As more and more middle aged people stopped working during the crisis and were able to stay home it freed up their time to do more care of their aging parents. Castle Keep’s team of PSWs weren’t needed the same way.
“Then there were the elderly people who, understandably, didn’t want us or anyone else in their homes,” as they were told to social distance, says Bashford, who was also trained as a PSW.
Add that to the hospital visits they used to do, which also came to an abrupt end, and things changed fast for the company.
That only left Castle Keep with “the frailest seniors, with the highest levels of dementia” to care for or shop for.
“It was getting scary enough for us to shop for ourselves, let alone go to the grocery store three times a day for others, too,” says Bashford, noting he would have felt sick if any of his staff or clients had been affected by the virus.
Fortunately, he says, that didn’t happen.
The other day Bashford saw one of his PSWs – April — walking down a ghostly-quiet, grey Kent Street with a clutch of bright balloons in her hand. She was off to see a client, he says, a surreal scene for him with the colourful balloons juxtaposed against a nearly abandoned main street.
“People like her, they’re heroes. They’re still scared and still working. But I don’t want them to have to go to work feeling like that,” he says, which contributed to his belief it was time to close up.
Bashford is working hard to pack up his space in the Cambridge Mall. He’ll keep his website for now and his business phone number.
When he thinks about an unknowable future – made more so by the pandemic – he says he at least knows it won’t be business as usual.
“Let’s face it, the fabric of our society is never going to be the same. My business model of jumping from home to home…is over. Clients don’t want that, the team doesn’t want it, and I don’t think we will be allowed in a nursing home again for years,” he says.
Front line health care workers forced to work two or three part-time jobs just to get enough hours to survive is part of the reason for the virus’ spread, according to public health officials.
Bashford says he hopes that in the next six months the government might say “PSWs are worth a lot of money and should be making $60,000 a year instead of $20,000,” although he says much will depend on what the market will bear. He says maybe governments will offer some sort of subsidy to keep them motivated to work in long term care.
For now, he’s at a point in his life that for the first time in 16 years he will not be responding to either a pager (in the old days) or a phone. He’s going to spend more time with his wife, Sarah (who is still working full time), and his kids, age 15 and 12.
Might we one day see Bashford’s return to the health care sector again?
“The thought of that is too much for me today – but maybe after a rest I will see things differently.”