Two homecare workers describe the experience of working at long-term and personal care homes hit hard by COVID-19
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, CUPE joined with other health care unions and the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to produce several principles for protecting workers, patients and residents. These sets of protocols were especially important for CUPE members who were working in facilities with seniors and other high-risk patients. While fear was common among health care workers, a few CUPE members cast their real fear aside and put their health at risk to help some of the most vulnerable patients in Saskatchewan, by volunteering at some of the most high-risk locations in the province.
Arlene Nyhus lives in Weyburn. For eight years now, she has been working as a continuing care assistant for the SHA. Once the pandemic took hold, and as protocols and policies began changing, some health care workers began losing hours. Other than full time workers who were cohorted or who worked in both long-term care and other services like home care were especially impacted. The fear and worry for the safety of her patients, combined with the uncertainty of getting homecare work began taking its toll on her mental health. But Arlene was determined to keep her spirits high and maintain her high standard of care. “It was challenging because when we go to our client’s homes, we always need to be at our best mental health,” said Nyhus. “We always want to do our best for the client.”
As time rolled on, it became clear that long-term care facilities were in crisis. Already understaffed, many long-term care workers were being exposed to COVID-19, and others stayed home fearing exposure. Convinced that she could help, Arlene began by accepting redeployments at two SHA facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, Golden Prairie in Indian Head, and the Weyburn General Hospital. Her incredible dedication shone through, however, when she agreed to work at the Crocus Plains Villa. At the time, that private personal care home in Weyburn was ravaged by COVID, and they desperately needed staff. Concerned for the safety of its members working in non-SHA facilities, CUPE had outlined some mandatory safety protocols for private care homes, and insisted that CUPE members would not be redeployed to Crocus Plains Villa unless they volunteered. Arlene volunteered.
Although she knew she could offer much needed help, she admits she was scared. “When your employer says ‘outbreak’, it’s scary,” she remembers. “When you go into an outbreak facility, there is no amount of money that can make up for the risk you are taking, but I knew that our CUPE agreement protected us.”
From the first day, Arlene realized that the challenges she was expecting were magnified. “All the people who were supposed to be training me were sick or in isolation,” she says. “I had to work independently and figure out things like where the staff room was and even where the beds were.”
The job was emotional. On more than one occasion, she spent time with patients who were in their last moments of life. In one instance, she was told about a resident who passed away alone because the family refused to go into the facility to say goodbye to their loved one. The failings of our long-term care system suddenly became a stark reality, and a reminder why she decided to volunteer in the first place. “Who will take care of these people? Who will feed them? Every hour of the day they need help. Somebody needs to do it,” she says.
For seven years now, Catherine Sneath has been working for the SHA, as a continuing care assistant in home care who was re-deployed to Weyburn at the same personal care home as Arlene. “I met Arlene on my first day. She had already been working for 24-hours straight,” she recalls.
Catherine described the chaotic scene she walked into. “There was a huge learning curve because they were so short-staffed, so everyone just pitched in and did whatever they could to help.”
Like Arlene, Catherine overcame her fear of working in an outbreak facility because she believed she could make a difference in the lives of the residents. “My heart went out to the residents,” she said. “They had to isolate in their rooms, which was challenging because many of them were already facing mental health issues like dementia, so many of them were confused. They all felt cut-off and alone.”
She described an experience where a resident went to the hospital and passed away. The family were not allowed to enter the facility and retrieve some of his personal effects for the memorial. Instead, Catherine would show them the items through the window while they stood in a snowbank trying to pick out items for the service. “It was just heartbreaking doing it through the window. I found the whole experience physically demanding and emotionally draining,” she remembered.
Even though both Arlene and Catherine say the conditions they faced were difficult, both say they would go back if asked. “The job is rewarding. At the end of the day you feel valued,” said Arlene. In Catherine’s case, much of her optimism came from knowing she had the support of her union.
“I was feeling afraid, but I remember reading the article from CUPE and suddenly I was feeling really grateful that I had the strength of my union,” she recalled. “It made me feel lucky that we had a union fighting for us.”
Given the chance to send a message to the public, both expressed frustration at the conditions faced by residents in long-term care and the disinformation that allowed people to minimize the dangers of COVID. “Those who say it’s a conspiracy need to see this,” said Catherine. “People are going into hospitals and not coming home. People say masks don’t work. Usually I’m sick a few times a year, but it’s amazing that I haven’t been sick this year and I’m here to attest that masking, washing your hands frequently and keeping your distance works.”
Arlene is also encouraging people to ignore the misinformation on COVID. “If you are scared, talk to your doctor and people of authority,” she advises. “Don’t go online and help spread rumours. We are in chaos right now because of rumours.”
While the residents that Arlene and Catherine were caring for likely never heard about the role that CUPE played in fighting for the safety of its members, they did see two hard-working, dedicated health care workers who gave them a level of personal care they desperately needed.