Volunteers step up to help out in long-term care

COVID-19 has exacerbated chronic staffing shortages in the LTC sector. So these Ontario recruiters and researchers decided to pitch in
By Priya Iyer - Published on Jun 19, 2020
Staffing issues in Ontario’s long-term-care sector were well documented before COVID-19.  (iStock.com/shapecharge)

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Recruitment professional Marc Bardwell’s industry came to a near-standstill during COVID-19. After talking to a friend in Ontario’s long-term-care sector, Bardwell realized he could help. Backed by his recruiting company, he put a call out to other recruiters. Very quickly, we put a group of volunteers together, which is absolutely fantastic,” Bardwell says.  The group, which has grown to 150 volunteers, is supporting long-term-care homes that have reached out for help with their staffing needs — screening candidates, conducting vulnerable-sector checks, and harnessing technology that centres may not have access to during the hiring process. 

With chronic staffing shortages in Ontario’s seniors’-care sector exacerbated by COVID-19, homes across the province face significant hiring needs. 

“Homes have never had such complex hiring situations,” says Bardwell. His team is working to fill 515 positions, among them a new role — resident-support aide — created to meet the demand for PSWs. So far, they’ve filled 100, thanks in part, to an Emergency Assignment class by the College of Nurses of Ontario that has enabled the hiring of recent nursing graduates during COVID-19.  Nursing students who have completed their first year can be hired as PSWs. Bardwell says that 600 people have reached out to them regarding a job. 

Their call-out was broad — many who responded are nursing graduates or students, but they’re also looking for cooks and recreation or food aids. The services Bardwell’s group provides complement resources such as the Ontario Long Term Care Association’s new portal for students and internationally trained health workers, the government’s health-care matching portal, and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, which CEO Doris Grinspun says has deployed nurses and personal-support workers to more than 300 nursing homes. “These are people that want to help,” Grinspun says. “To go in a home that is in an outbreak is not a simple thing. You really need to want to do that.” 

Ninety per cent of the long-term-care facilities Bardwell is currently working with have had an outbreak. “We’re being very sympathetic,” he says. “Many times, people want to step up, but there’s a fear.”  

Staffing issues in Ontario’s long-term-care sector were well documented before COVID-19: according to a 2017 survey from the OLTCA, 90 per cent of all Ontario long-term-care homes had trouble recruiting staff. Family caregivers would frequently pitch in. One of them, Susan Mills, says that, in the 15 months that her mother has been in a home, she would regularly help serve dinner or talk to other residents. “We knew they were short-staffed,” Mills says. “Everyone knows; you’d help out when you could.” Family caregivers were barred from visiting throughout much of the pandemic, further straining already scarce resources; on June 11, though, Premier Doug Ford announced a "cautious restart" of visits to LTC, retirement, group, and other congregant-care homes, beginning June 18. 

“The management of staff can be the biggest gap,” says Joanne Smith, director of community relations at Cedarbrook Lodge, a for-profit retirement home in Scarborough, who adds that supportive management is critical, particularly during an outbreak, when workers’ own health could be at risk. Smith is at the home every day, pitching in wherever help is needed. “Our staff, some have been with us for 30 years.” 

As a preventative measure, the retirement home limited the use of the dining hall, instead serving residents in their rooms. The home also lost staff after stipulating a one-location-only work policy in March. “Some of our PSWs worked in a grocery store, and that was a no for us,” says Smith. More hands were needed to deliver food and to provide small-group recreational activities. To get ahead of the situation, Smith reached out to Tara Moriarty, an infectious-diseases researcher, whose mother is a resident there. 

In March, Moriarty, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, co-founded a national COVID-19 initiative. The intent, Moriarty said, was to mobilize scientists across Canada who could help with COVID-19 testing or diagnostics. “About 20 of us in the core group — web developers, science communicators, scientists — started building this website, identifying research needs, and then the needs of communities that scientists could help with,” Moriarty said. More than 4,600 people from across the country signed up to volunteer where needed. Though this hadn’t been the original intent of the initiative, when Moriarty put a call out for help at her mother’s retirement home, 44 people responded; three have since started volunteering there.  

“I said, we have all these people who may be able to help, and that’s how it started,” Moriarty says. But, when a retirement home in crisis asked for help, Moriarty realized it was beyond her scope. “This is a major systemic problem, and, in homes with outbreaks, you need a serious response — you can’t just have volunteers coming in.” A local hospital has since stepped in. 

Smith says that retirement homes need to have more staffing and testing supports in place before an outbreak occurs. “No one called us to say, ‘Let’s start this process — let’s find out what you may need,’” she says. “If you wait until your residents are sick, or you’ve lost staff, it’s too late.”  Moriarty’s assistance was appealing, Smith says, because staffing agencies have increased their prices; some, she says, are charging up to $150 per hour for a nurse. “Housekeeping, extra sanitation — if you’ve lost 15 or 20 staff, who’s replacing them?” 

Bardwell’s group has committed its support until the end of June. “It was an opportunity to give back,” he says. “It’s a tough time for everyone right now, and there was a real opportunity to help.”

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