Recognition long overdue for personal support workers
Images of people across the country taking to their front porches and balconies every evening to applaud the efforts of frontline health workers has been a highly welcomed and well-deserved outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. This public and raucous display of appreciation, however, is long overdue for one group in particular – Personal Support Workers (PSWs).
PSWs play a vital role in long-term care homes, adult day programs, palliative care, supportive housing and providing home care out in the community. With a spotlight on challenges in long-term care homes in the news, it’s become increasingly clear just how essential PSWs are to enhancing the quality of life for vulnerable individuals.
Sheridan has been training the next generation of PSWs for nearly three decades in its certificate program. Over two semesters, students complete theoretical and practical requirements out of its Davis Campus in Brampton and gain hands-on experience through two work placements.
PSWs are like family
Often described as the “heavy lifters” of the healthcare system, the PSW handles a range of functional and emotional wellbeing responsibilities that provide holistic support for clients. PSWs help individuals with daily tasks like feeding, bathing, using the washroom, getting dressed, eating, grocery shopping and attending social activities such as church services or recreational offerings in long-term care homes.
“PSWs look after the whole person,” says Betty Buder, Sheridan PSW Program Coordinator and Professor. “Their role is often unfairly trivialized because it involves attending to someone’s basic needs, but having those needs met improves quality of life. We must remember, PSWs are engaged when caregivers can no longer adequately provide for a family member. A family is entrusting a PSW with their loved one.”
“The caregiver burden is hard to quantify,” adds Andrew McGimpsey, a 2017 Sheridan PSW graduate, current Practical Nursing student and Owner of Compassion Care Home and Health Inc. – a home care service provider in the Greater Toronto Area. He’s encountered many instances where young professionals feel obligated to leave their full-time jobs to care for an aging parent. “It can become like a second full-time job. PSWs are instrumental to enhancing the well-being of the whole family.”
Ashleigh Griffin, a fellow 2017 PSW grad, and Program Assistant for the Region of Peel’s Sheridan Villa long-term care home, relies on a host of skills to do her job well. “I need to be outgoing, personable, passionate and cooperative,” she says. “As a PSW, you must be willing to share a piece of yourself with the people in your care to make real, lasting connections.”
Griffin came to the profession as a second career. She studied at the University of Waterloo and spent time abroad before pivoting to elder care. Typically, she works in an activation capacity, programming recreational opportunities for long-term care residents, but since the pandemic started, has been reassigned to more traditional PSW duties. Her cross-training has been beneficial at a time when in-person interaction is limited, and workers must find new, creative ways to keep spirits up.
“We must find creative solutions to be able to properly support our aging population.” Andrew McGimpsey
Now, more than ever before, the relationship between PSW and client is crucial to supporting emotional well-being. “As much as we’re caring for residents, we’re also keeping worried families assured that their loved ones are well cared for,” says Griffin. Most visitors aren’t permitted into long-term care homes during the pandemic and a PSW becomes a lifeline to the world outside through video calls and window visits.
Sheridan launches stand-out PSWs
PSWs have been in-demand in the healthcare system for many years and opportunities continue to be ripe. Sheridan’s program boasts a 100% employment rate for its graduates and 100% employer satisfaction from those who hire them.
One such employer, David Shaw, Owner and Managing Director – Mississauga of Nurse Next Door home care services, knows first-hand that Sheridan students are well-prepared to make a positive impact, not only with older adults but children and people with disabilities. “Sheridan’s PSWs continually prove they’re ready to ‘take on the world’ by demonstrating confidence, knowledge and an eagerness to make a difference in an individual’s life,” he says.
Sheridan’s program is taught by Registered Nurses who have years of experience in a variety of settings. Nurses supervise PSWs on healthcare teams in long-term care, so their expert instruction is invaluable. Sheridan students take courses in communication skills, structure and function of the human body, mental health issues and cognitive impairments, palliative care and supporting families. One of the first things they’re taught is infection control protocol, including proper use and disposal of personal protective equipment – a lesson of increased importance during a pandemic that’s been devastating to long-term care settings.
“As a PSW, you must be willing to share a piece of yourself with the people in your care to make real, lasting connections.” – Ashleigh Griffin
Some PSWs find administrative, leadership opportunities in healthcare. McGimpsey, a former Sheridan business student and entrepreneurial-minded innovator, started his own home care business after studying PSW to learn the ins and outs of the people he’d be managing. He’s also enrolled in Sheridan’s Practical Nursing program, a steppingstone that PSWs often pursue to expand career opportunities. In fact, Sheridan is introducing a formal pathway for PSW students enter its Practical Nursing program later in 2020. Griffin is currently pursuing her teaching certification in hopes of one day working as a PSW instructor.
Both Griffin and McGimpsey remain connected to Sheridan through the PSW Program Advisory Committee – a group of professionals who advise on curriculum and pedagogy based on their relevant, timely experience out in the field. The Committee’s collective advice keeps curriculum current and students well prepared for work.
Elevating the status of PSWs
It may have taken a global pandemic to begin to shift people’s perspective of the work of a PSW but it’s a “silver lining in a challenging situation,” says Buder. There’s been a government-mandated increase to hourly wages and more focus in the media on the work of the PSW, which Buder, Griffin and McGimpsey all hope will result in a wider, sustained conversation around ongoing improvements to the industry.
“There are definitely tough moments in this line of work,” says Griffin. “But I keep the mindset that we’re privileged to be a part of a person’s later-years journey. I don’t see their decline in the same way their families have, so I focus on what they are able to do now, not what they can no longer do.” It’s an approach indicative of the humanity essential to the role of a PSW.
From his time working as a PSW and in an administrative capacity, McGimpsey knows all too well that caring for older adults is only going to become more complex and overwhelm existing infrastructure in years to come. He’s dedicated to finding new ways to help people age in place at home. “We must find creative solutions to be able to properly support our aging population,” he says.
Griffin is hopeful that an approach the Sheridan Villa has adopted for its dementia care wing, The Butterfly Movement – a departure from a clinical, task-orientation model to a focus on emotional wellbeing and engaging environments – will become the norm in long-term care for all residents. “We’re not just performing tasks,” she says. “There’s a person on the end of it. We must find time and opportunities for personal, purposeful engagement with the people we’re supporting.”
May 19 is Personal Support Worker Day in Ontario. Sheridan would like to acknowledge all its PSW faculty, staff, students, alumni and partners who work to ensure individuals in our communities are well supported with quality care. Thank you for your work!
Interested in Sheridan’s Personal Support Worker program? Visit the program page.
Pictured at top of page: The Centre for Healthy Communities at Sheridan’s Davis Campus in Brampton, Ontario.