September 21st will mark the eighth anniversary of my fall and my sustaining a spinal cord injury. This injury has prevented my walking and has also crippled my hands. I bring this up to emphasize the fact that I need a lot of hands-on help in everything I do.
The first 8 1/2 months after I fell was spent in a rehabilitation hospital. In the hospital, it is often difficult to tell the difference between nurses and personal support workers (PSW's). In the seven plus years that I have been out, the difference has been quite clear. While nurses often play a similar role, I have stated time and time again that the PSW carries out the most noble professional work known to mankind. More noble than nurses and much much more noble than doctors, lawyers, judges, educators , scientists , businesspeople, politicians, spiritual leaders – you name it.
I say this because I feel it. I feel it in the morning when they bring me my breakfast, when they assist me in getting up and doing my ablutions, when they shower me, when they look after me and check to see if I have any noticeable health problems (which they often report to nurses in my retirement residence). They put me to bed at night; they say good night and turn the lights out. Frankly, because my loving family is out of town, in many ways they become close friends. I look forward to their visits and their help.
Seven years ago, all but one or two of the PSW's who helped me had lived in Canada for only a short period of time. They had almost all come from the Philippines. (One exception came from El Salvador and two other exceptions that I recall were born in Canada). PSW's do wear out quickly and tend to be replaced by people who have not been in the country very long. So far this month, I have been tended to by four women whose home country is the Philippines, two from Haiti as well as one from each of India, Sudan, Nigeria, the Congo, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Canada. I have also been tended to by six men, one from each of Uganda, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Madagascar and Canada.
The PSW has been in the spotlight in Ontario, lately. The way they are treated is such that you would never know that they are "noble". They have been on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. They have been expected to come into my retirement residence and help me and other people in the community, always themselves free of disease but always in danger of picking up disease and taking it home to their families.
Because they are so poorly paid, in every case that I know until now, they have had to hold two jobs, that is they have worked for two different companies. Now, they have been ordered to only hold one job, but nobody has made it clear as to how they are supposed to put food on the table. They are paid only a little more than minimum wage, and, even although they are in great demand, the companies that hire them on contracts refused to assign them enough work so that that, in any one two-week period, they would be working into overtime and eligible for more pay.. These for-profit companies are retained by the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) at an almost 50% markup over what they actually pay the workers .These workers are not given priority for Personal Protective Equipment.. They have to wear simple masks which they usually have to obtain themselves. I have only seen one N95 mask, and it was worn by a PSW whose husband brings them home from the auto parts plant where he works.
They go through the emotional turmoil of seeing old people when we die. With the coronavirus here it is not unusual for frightened funeral parlor employees to insist that the PSW deal with the body after death.
The province has set up a commission to investigate the problems in long-term care facilities. It should be a full fledged Public Inquiry. The whole system is a mess and many of us worry as to how we will ever navigate it. If this commission ignores the role of the PSW and how their position should be improved, the future will continue to be frightening for many of us.
I hope that there will always be loving PSW's there to help.