Essential home-care workers are hard to find

January 16, 2009




Sharon Ogden knows that one day she will hit the exhaustion point in caring for her husband John, who has Alzheimer's disease.

When that happens, she hopes the province's home-care system will provide enough relief and support to help her keep John at home where he's been since his official diagnosis two years ago.

"It's hard seeing this dispirited person every day. It's hard on me, period," she says. "A lot of times, my plans for the day are obstructed because he asks non-ending questions his way of dealing with the confusion. This interferes with my own thoughts of how to cope."

Bright-eyed and physically fit, John shows no external signs that anything is wrong; that his brain is slowly shutting down.

He's been on medication that slows the onset of the disease for almost two years, which is about how long the drug is effective in most patients. Sharon is concerned about what will happen as John's condition worsens.

She has begun looking into what services are available from the Waterloo-Wellington Community Care Access Centre near their hometown of Fergus. There are 14 such centres in Ontario, funded by the province to provide home-care services such as nursing, physiotherapy, personal needs and occupational and speech therapy.

"I go to a caregivers' support group once a month and John goes to a support group for Alzheimer's patients," Ogden says. "I've met caregivers who've been dealing with Alzheimer's and all the stress that goes with it for eight, nine years or more."

She knows home-care support is available but worries that the amount of help might not be enough to prevent burnout.

Based on an assessment of each patient's needs, Ontario will provide up to 120 hours of help from support workers in the first month and 90 hours a month after that.

But there's a shortage of personal-support workers in some areas of the province, including Ogden's. She has been writing letters to local newspapers and her MPP to promote better working conditions for personal support workers, to attract more people to the field. They now earn about $12.50 an hour.

"They're a critical part of the support system to keep patients in their homes," Ogden says. "But their wages and working conditions are poor, they're overworked and there's little job satisfaction. It's an issue that has to be addressed.

"We really have to value these people," says Ogden, especially if a provincial strategy to keep aging baby boomers in their homes, instead of institutions, is going to work.

Joanne Bertrand, executive director of the Alzheimer Society of Guelph-Wellington, agrees the pay rate is low for support workers and the turnover rate is high.

As a result, patients see different workers all the time, which Bertrand points out is not good for patients with cognitive disorders. And the shortage of workers makes it tough for family caregivers.

"Most of the families we know don't mind doing the care, they just want some respite."