Each day we read the numbers regarding those who have died from the COVID-19 virus and outbreaks in long term care homes.
But behind all the government and public health unit statistics, each long term care facility is a real home to aging men and women – people who are beloved parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, spouses, siblings and friends – each long term care facility a place where health care professionals are employed to take care of them, in both physically and emotionally supportive ways.
The latter group is among those known as ‘frontline workers’ during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
SooToday asked Ontario Finnish Resthome Association (OFRA) health care workers to give us an idea what it’s been like to work in a high risk long term care home environment with people’s loved ones in their care.
“It’s been stressful,” said Michelle Blackburn, an OFRA Behavioural Supports Ontario (BSO) personal support worker (PSW) who helps new residents deal with the transition of moving from their own homes to a long term care home.
“We’ve got to make sure we do our due diligence, to make sure we don’t bring it (the virus) in. The home’s been really great. They’ve purchased us uniforms, we come to work in our regular clothes and change when we get to work before we go out on the floor.”
“We’re dealing with people that have more compromised immune systems, so they’re affected more than others would be. We’re stressed because we want to make sure these people are kept very safe but we also want to keep it as normal as possible for them. We don’t want them to get stressed out or depressed over all this because they’re not able to see their family members and because the recreational activities aren’t quite what they used to be. We try to make it as pleasant and unchanged as possible for them,” Blackburn said.
In fact, OFRA staff are planning an extra safe, COVID-conscious Juhannus event for residents, Juhannus a Finnish celebration of summer solstice.
“It’s been a growing process, learning to be very flexible because things change on a daily basis. You never know what directives you’re going to get from the provincial government on any given day,” said Tara Hill, an OFRA recreation therapist.
“We’ve had to learn how we can follow the regulations and still try to keep the residents lives and routines as normal as possible, so there have been lots of challenges...we’re concerned about the health and wellbeing of the residents, they miss their families and a lot of them don’t understand why their families haven’t been in to visit, they have feelings of isolation and loneliness, and we’re concerned about our own health and wellbeing and our own families,” Hill said.
“Emails have just exploded with information back and forth from families about their loved ones, phone calls.”
Hill said staff have worked to arrange, as much as possible, Skype and Facetime visits for residents and their families.
“We’re still assisting with all the meals throughout the day to help residents eating at breakfast, lunch and dinner as usual, and we plan and organize activities for the residents,” Hill said.
“We’re limited to four residents and one staff member (during activities, observing provincial government-imposed restrictions on gatherings of no more than five people), but we’re still doing the games, the curling, the bowling, bingo, all those things we would normally do, talking with residents to see how they’re doing,” Hill said.
“I feel bad for my residents because they cannot see their loved ones come in. They used to come in every day to see their mother, their father, but we can’t receive visitors anymore. That takes a heavy toll on the residents and myself,” said Nancy Denning, OFRA PSW.
“We’re just like family up there. We see them (the residents) just as much as we see our own families. I try not to stress out thinking ‘am I going to end up having the virus and infecting a resident and have them pass away?’” Denning said.
“For the most part, it’s been business as usual, but we do have a lot more added (emotional) pressure on us now because we know families are missing their loved ones...we’re instructed not to get too ‘attached’ to residents at school, but we do,” said Heidi McMillan, OFRA PSW.
But OFRA staff, like staff in all long term care homes, have kept a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ attitude throughout it all.
“I feel, as far as myself and my coworkers go, that we have basically taken the stiff upper lip. There are pretty strong individuals that work here. We’re trying to be as normal as possible so the residents don’t feel our stress. If they feel our stress, then they’re stressed. We don’t want them to feel that stress,” Blackburn said.
“It’s been awesome teamwork...people working double shifts. Management has been supportive. Everybody’s been calm,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn told us she has worked, on a couple of occasions during COVID, her usual shift from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then continued until 10:30 p.m.
“It’s tiring, but I’m not the only one. Many of the staff have done that (working extra hours).”
“You take lots of deep breaths,” Hill chuckled.
“I’ve got excellent coworkers up at OFRA. It’s brought us closer together, we talk to each other about our own families and our residents,” Denning said, adding OFRA is well-organized both now and for the future should the virus manifest itself at the facility.
“Everybody gets along here great anyway, but there’s probably more (team spirit) than usual. We’ve got each other's back. It’s like that slogan ‘We’re all in this together,’” McMillan said.
The four workers we spoke to left no doubt they each love their jobs and the duties they perform for the elderly.
In fact, they said the COVID-19 scare has led to more camaraderie between OFRA staff, as well as a rewarding, enhanced sense of gratitude and appreciation for front line workers such as themselves, both from the families of OFRA residents and the public in general.
“It has been very rewarding, a bit moreso,” Blackburn said.
“One day I took photos of some of the residents and emailed them to the family members just to let them know they’re doing well. I’d get emails back from the families appreciating everything we all do here. I planted some flowers for the residents, we have them outside, then after, I noticed there were these stones along the railings and outside the front door with different messages of hope on them for the staff. It was really touching to see those and read those. I have no idea who did it,” Blackburn said.
“In some ways it has been more rewarding. It’s nice to see frontline workers getting recognized for what they do, day in and day out, and I think there is some extra camaraderie between OFRA employees throughout this. We’ve always had good camaraderie here but I think the various departments have become more aware of each other and are working better together with the focus of keeping the residents safe,” Hill said.
“The families have been great and supportive. They send treats to the staff and cards of encouragement. We definitely see more recognition for frontline workers,” Hill said.
“Everyone has been great through all this,” Denning said.
“Management and outside agencies have been wonderful. They’ve brought us food, coffee and doughnuts. It’s nice to see when someone else brings something in and lets us know we’re appreciated,” Denning said.
“It’s a very rewarding job to begin with. The families were generally grateful before COVID started...but now we have so many thank you cards hanging up at the nurses station, they've sent pizza, doughnuts, meat trays and food trays, we definitely feel appreciated, 100 per cent. There are local churches that buy us food, it’s amazing, just amazing,” McMillan said.
Once the long day is over, how do these frontliners relax?
“My husband and I and the kids will take our boat out and enjoy fishing, we have a trailer on private property, we go for Side by Side rides. We’re very lucky we have those country places to go to and relax,” Blackburn said.
“I listen to audiobooks. Reading is my main ‘go to’ for relaxation, along with working out and being with my family,” Hill said.
“I come home, cook supper and go for a walk in the evening, enjoy camp on my days off and just relax,” Denning said.
“My husband and I have three children so we’re used to being with each other, at the rink in the winter, in the pool in the summer, so we spend a lot of time with each other, staying indoors (during COVID-19) but planning to do some camping,” McMillan said.
“That absolutely helps, along with a good cup of coffee,” she chuckled.
As far as numbers go, of over 30,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 2,400 deaths in Ontario between mid-January and the first week of June, over 630 deaths have been reported among people between the ages of 60 and 79, over 1,600 deaths among people 80 and over.
While COVID-19 cases in Algoma have been low, with (thankfully) no deaths to report, there have been over 300 outbreaks of the virus in long term care homes across the province, both residents and staff at extra high risk.