Home care opens door to career possibilities; Statistics show increasing need for personal support workers

Kerry Harrison divides her work week between two elderly Toronto women. She spends four weekday mornings in one woman’s home, and three weekday evenings and Sunday mornings in the other’s. Both women are in the early stages of dementia, and Harrison helps them bathe, prepares meals, does light housework and spends plenty of time chatting and doing crossword puzzles with them.

“It doesn’t seem like work,” says Harrison, 45, who receives $20 an hour for her services. “I feel like I’m being paid to hang out with people I like.”

Harrison is a personal support worker (PSW), a career that will see an increase in demand in coming years as Canada’s population ages. After many years of working as a nanny, she completed George Brown College’s personal support worker program last spring. The two-semester, 700-hour program trains students for basic front-line health care work in hospitals, homes for the elderly, group homes, hospices and as support workers in private homes. Tuition for the two semesters of the 2012-2013 school year is $3,201.

“I’d come to the end of a 10-year job and decided to look into other options,” Harrison says.

“The idea of spending time with older people appealed to me. I’ve always been comfortable around the elderly and I enjoy their company.”

Certificate PSW programs are offered at a number of post-secondary institutions throughout Ontario. Under the province’s Long-Term Care Homes Act, successful completion of a program that meets the government’s vocational standards is required by every personal support worker who is hired for work all long-term care facilities in Ontario.

Other Canadian provinces have implemented mandatory certification for health care support workers or are working toward higher training standards.

In Alberta, health care support workers are called “health care aides,” and certified training is not currently mandatory. However, Alberta Health and Wellness has developed and maintains a competency training curriculum that has been adopted by most public and private post-secondary institutions in the province that offer health care aide programs.

With a critical shortfall of 5,000 health care aides estimated for 2016, the province is in the middle of a nine-year plan to ensure an adequate supply of support workers. This includes raising compensation rates to retain existing workers and recruiting more skilled professionals.

Earlier this year, it launched a recruitment campaign, inviting applications for a limited number of grant-funded spaces in two Alberta training colleges.

“Demographics tell us there will be an increase in the need for skilled support workers and a rise in home care,” says Nora Way, dean of health studies at Medicine Hat College. “Right now, 100 per cent of our graduates find employment. Many are offered jobs before they finish the program.”

A George Brown College survey of graduates conducted last August showed that 86 per cent of graduates of the PSW program were employed and received an average salary of $36,844. “Some graduates go on with their studies after they finish the program,” says Deanna Lunn, chair of the Ontario college’s school of nursing. PSW graduates can apply for admission to the college’s practical nursing program.

Martha Niever knew that Medicine Hat College’s health care aide program would bring job opportunities. She and her husband and their two young sons immigrated to Canada three and a half years ago from Colombia, where she had worked as an accountant. She decided it would be too difficult to qualify as an accountant here, and opted to train as an aide because she’d enjoyed volunteer work with the elderly in Colombia. She completed the college’s program in February and is now employed as a casual nursing attendant at Medicine Hat Hospital, hoping to get full-time work soon.

Harrison says the job itself can be challenging. “You can easily make a mistake. I make sure I have enough down time. I bike to work, so that gives me down time to myself before and after a job. I also do yoga, which helps me stay strong and flexible, and to maintain a balanced perspective. I try to eat properly and get enough sleep so I can switch off my own problems when I open the client’s door.”

She also takes out liability insurance for professional caregivers that provides coverage in the event of accidentally causing injury to a client or property damage.

Niever says the job isn’t for everyone.

“You need to like people and enjoy helping them, and I do. I look forward to going to work.”

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