The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant crisis in Canada’s nursing homes exposed the critical role of personal care workers across the country. Known by different names in different provinces (and even within provinces), many of these workers train in colleges in a combination of in-class learning and hands-on apprenticeships. They work in long-term care, in the community and in hospitals, assisting seniors, people with disabilities and people recovering from illness or injury. They are at the very front line of the Canadian health-care system.
In the late 1990s, Roberts moved to Yellowknife to work as a licensed practical nurse. She hoped for an exciting role in the operating room. Instead, she landed in long-term care—and loved it. “I really fell in love with caring for elders,” she says. “Northern elders, in particular, are very hardy and a very special group of people.” After 15 years in the field, Roberts became an instructor for personal support workers (PSWs) at the city’s Aurora College. She trains about a dozen students a year, many of whom are women, often single parents, in their 30s and 40s. Personal support workers in the Northwest Territories are often government employees who receive up to $30 an hour and a pension. “I quickly learned, by educating women in particular, what a huge difference they make in the lives of elders in their communities,” she says. This spring, as students were a few weeks away from certification, the college went into lockdown. Many students didn’t have the internet or a computer at home. “We actually found ourselves printing things and delivering them to their doorstep so they could finish,” she says.
MacLean was midway through her training in the PSW program at the G. A. Wheable Centre for Adult and Continuing Education in London when COVID-19 hit Ontario. She finished the classroom theory portion of her coursework and began work at a long-term care home, receiving a student wage. She’s now accrued the necessary hours for on-the-job training and is awaiting certification. The training taught her the tasks integral to elder care, such as moving people safely and finding ways to reduce the risk of falls. MacLean, a single parent, works the night shift. “It’s hard work,” she says, “but it’s rewarding.” For her, one of the draws is the long list of job opportunities: “It’s endless.” Having studied police foundations prior to becoming a PSW, she hopes that her combined training will earn her a spot in a hospital one day, preferably working with people struggling with mental health. “I like being busy. That’s my drive.”
When Rolph and her husband moved from Alberta to Newfoundland for his job, she decided she was ready for a new career. At age 50, she signed up to train as a health-care aide at the College of the North Atlantic. “I came to school with my life’s worth of experience,” she says. She knew she wanted to take care of older adults, having watched her grandfather die following a long struggle with dementia. After getting her certification last spring, Rolph began working at a long-term care facility in St. John’s. She never knows what to expect in a day, but it is often a mix of joy and sorrow. Her favourite part of the job is listening to her patients tell stories. But there are days, too, when patients die. “It takes a little piece of you,” she says. Even in her short career, COVID-19 dramatically changed her responsibilities. With family caregivers and volunteers restricted from visiting, “you’re responsible for taking care of people’s physical, emotional, spiritual needs,” she says. “You become their family.”
As Wedzin sees it, her journey to becoming a PSW began when, as an infant, she was adopted by a woman who was nearly 50. “She was the best mother I could have asked for,” she says. “But as I got older, so did she.” Wedzin, who grew up in Behchokǫ, a First Nations community about 110 km northwest of Yellowknife, lived with her mother and cared for her during the last years of her life. When she died in 2019, Wedzin felt lost. But she realized that she had years of experience in caregiving and moved to Yellowknife for the nearest training program. She worried that she wouldn’t make it through the program: a close friend died early in Wedzin’s studies. “I asked for guidance when I was struggling and asked for my mom’s help,” she says. She graduated this spring. She enjoys the little tasks that improve a person’s quality of life. “It’s things like helping them out of bed, or even when they want you to change the channel,” she says. “They thank you over and over again…And they ask, ‘When will you be back? When will you be working next?’ ”
In 2005, Mondol came to Calgary from Bangladesh with her husband. They had three children over the next eight years. Her father, on a visit after Mondol’s youngest was born, encouraged her to seek employment outside the home. In 2019, she completed a six-month health-care aide program at Alberta Business and Education Services College. Today, she works as a caregiver for a local tech start-up, Vytality at Home, a web-based and app service that pairs caregivers with seniors living at home. Clients can select a specific caregiver at a scheduled time for a number of services. “I really love my job. I love working with our seniors,” says Mondol, having just finished a shift making a meal for a client. “When [I walk in] and they see me, I enjoy that. They’re waiting for me.” Sometimes, she helps clients shower or makes them lunch. But many people are looking for human interaction. “We talk. We play cognitive games,” she says. “Mostly it’s company.”
This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2020 Canadian Colleges Guidebook with the headline, “‘You become their family.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.