Society

Fear and exhaustion: Working as a PSW in long-term care during the coronavirus

'To all of a sudden have to try and save everybody—or at least feel like you do—it’s a lot on your shoulders. Not everybody can do that.'

Personal support workers (PSWs) make up about 85 per cent of the staff at long-term care homes for the elderly in Canada, says Miranda Ferrier, president of the Canadian Support Workers Association. Hired to do such intimate personal tasks as bathing, dressing, lifting and feeding, they are unregulated. Few have full-time positions or benefits. They typically earn $20 an hour or less. Many juggle two part-time jobs to make ends meet. Most are women. 

At least 600 seniors’ residences in Canada have staff or residents who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. That means PSWs are on the front lines of the pandemic. As a result, Ontario recently designated them essential workers. 

Maclean’s spoke with Monique Langlois, 47, on April 2, 2020, right after she finished her shift at a 96-bed long-term care facility in Windsor, Ont. Three other facilities in Windsor-Essex had just confirmed the first outbreaks of the virus in that area. Since then, three more outbreaks have been reported. Two staff members at Langlois’ facility have tested positive, and have been in isolation since March 23. This interview has been shortened and edited.

How have things changed?

In long-term care, we are used to outbreaks of different kinds and also to using personal protection equipment (PPEs). But we’re not used to being in a situation where something we bring in could actually knock out an entire floor. 

Some of the residents’ family members tried to hide [in the home] when they were told they couldn’t come in anymore. They were mad. They’re scared for their family members. They’re used to being there for their loved ones every single day. 

Because there are no family members, there are no volunteers, and we really need to pick up the slack. We do, and willingly, but it’s just getting harder and harder because there’s fewer staff. 

We’re losing some of our workers, temporarily, because they had to pick one job or another. We were guaranteed if we stayed with [Revera, the company that operates the home where Langlois works] we would get enough hours to cover a full-time shift, so you wouldn’t have to work part-time in two places.

Monique Langlois. (Photo courtesy of Monique Langlois)

Why did you choose to stay?

I was in office administration for 25 years and I was never happy. This is a calling, a passion for me. I took a cut in pay and got the worst hours possible [when I started], but I’ve never been happier. And that’s the attitude of most PSWs. It’s not a friendly job. I mean, cleaning bums and vomit, it’s not the prettiest job. 

How are you coping?

I’m going to be moving into the camper this weekend in my driveway because Windsor is getting so bad. I need to be prepared to keep my husband safe. 

Our management is there. Their doors are open 24/7. If we need to vent, if we need to cry, if we need to just let it out, we can. We’re allowed to, and it’s to be expected. It’s hard because you can’t even hug anybody right now. We can’t hug each other and say: “We got this.”

If there’s any chance that you’re not feeling well, they’re sending you home for 14 days. They’ve guaranteed our pay no matter what. We can come back healthier afterwards and pick up the slack from the next group that’s exhausted. They might need a break and feel like they’re losing it. So we switch out. ‘You had your 14-day quarantine, you’re fine, you get your butt in here. I need to go now.’ You know what I mean?

How do you manage the emotional strain?

I am actually not letting myself feel it completely.

It hasn’t hit us in our long-term care facility. But you’re on pins and needles waiting for it. We know that we’re always putting ourselves in a situation because of all the diseases that come into our building, but not at this level. It’s always been our job to give quality of life to our seniors—not save their lives. There’s a difference there. We’re there to help them live, and be comfortable, and die in peace, not suffocate because they can’t breathe and there’s no ventilator and their family can’t be there to hold their hand and neither can you because you’ve got to look after three other people. That’s the scary part. That’s the part that we are all dreading. 

To all of a sudden have to try and save everybody—at least feel like you have to save everybody—it’s a lot on your shoulders. Not everybody can do that. And not everybody is willing to take that risk for their own family because they have kids and spouses. Some [PSWs] are quitting because of it. 

Even veterans of war—and they suffered way more because they weren’t even in their own country— got training before going into war. They had their helmet, they had their gun, their camouflage uniforms, and their boots given to them, right from day one. 

How are the residents coping?

Some are really lost and confused and don’t understand why their families aren’t coming. No matter what we say to them, it doesn’t click in their heads. They’re more depressed. They might be less compliant to get up in the morning. They might not be smiling as much or start wandering a bit more, they might show a little bit more aggression. We’re dealing with a lot of crying with the ones [who don’t have dementia], because they’re watching the news and they’re worried about their loved ones.

What worries you the most?

Not being able to save any of them. Not being able to help any of them.

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