“We are in crisis”: Personal support workers are the backbone of home care in Ontario and there aren’t enough of them

Joanne Laucius, The Ottawa Citizen

Richard Martin slurs when he speaks. He has difficultly walking and swallowing food. He has short-term memory loss, and dementia is inevitable. Martin has Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. Until he was diagnosed in 2010, Martin had a busy east-end medical practice. Today, he is cared for by his wife, Melanie Dea, in their Rockland home.

Dea has watched the disease attack her husband’s mind and body. He needs constant attention and there’s only so much Dea can provide. And that’s a problem. Because even though Martin is entitled to five hours and 15 minutes of home care every week, provided by a personal support worker, help is hard to find in rural Ontario and many other parts of the province.

Home care has been touted as a way to keep people out of hospitals and long-term care. It costs less than institutional care, it’s better for patients and a life-saver for beleaguered caregivers like Dea. She relies on it, but her experience has been that her husband’s entitlement does not translate into reality. Sometimes he will get the hours he is entitled to, but more often it will be only an hour or two, she says. “There are so many PSWs who start and then they quit. Or they call in sick. I really need the break. I’m burned out,” says Dea. “It’s a full-time job. I get three hours of respite a week. What do I do? I go to the bank, to the grocery store.” Across Ontario, home care agencies are struggling to recruit and and retain personal support workers, known as PSWs. They get jobs right out of school, but many soon leave the field after they discover that the hours can be inconsistent, they are paid a dollar or two above minimum wage and they have to rush between appointments.

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