October 18 is Health Care Assistant Day and seems as good a time as any to celebrate these front line health care workers that provide some of the most basic care to care home residents, hospital patients, and independent clients. They assist people with everything from bathing, eating, dressing, toileting and other daily tasks that most of us still take for granted. These unsung heroes are key to helping our most frail and elderly enjoy a fundamental quality of life. In the course of their duties, they also provide social interaction and personal contact that often makes them seem more like friends or family. In the face of often challenging working conditions, care aides continue to do their utmost to deliver safe and compassionate care to some of our most vulnerable populations.
Care aides and health care assistants (HCAs) work in a variety of settings—from extended care nursing homes to residences with assisted living and also as home care workers. The outgoing government’s Ministry of Health had promised a $500,000 funding increase in an effort to increase staffing towards reaching a care guideline of 3.36 hours per day per resident within four years. They had also begun to implement its Action Plan for Seniors with an emphasis on expanding home support services to keep up with the growing demand as more and more seniors opt to age in place rather than move to an institution.
Three recent graduates of Thompson Rivers University's (TRU) 27-week Health Care Assistant program are Aimee Ludwig (April '17), Brandon Weis and Tracy Archie (both July '17). All three Kamloops area HCAs have found employment in their chosen field and all with government-run facilities/programs.
Weis also works at a private facility but explains his preference for his government job,
"I have access to more resources, better staffing and more incentives from the government over private. Private facilities are more physically appealing, but when it comes down to care, I prefer the government."
Archie, a proud young mother of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation from Tsq’escen’ (Canim Lake Band), had taken time off since graduating to spend time with her son and only recently began her search for work. She was hired by IHA only days ago and will begin her new job on Sept. 29.
All three are enthusiastic about their new careers, praising the training and mentorship they received through their schooling at TRU.
"I was very impressed at the level of education as well as the time and effort that the instructors put into the course. I know that I am providing the safest and very best care to my patients because of the thorough training and guidance that I received," said Ludwig.
Weis and Archie shared similar sentiments about their training, pointing to the thoroughness of the curriculum and the willingness of instructors to share their personal work experiences from the field with their students.
"They not only taught me the theory part of the program, but they shared their experience working in the health care field which was beneficial to me," said Archie.
While the Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) suggests that average earnings for a government employed care aide is $64,000 a year, numerous care aides have come forward since this story published and said the reality is quite different. Many care aides are working on a casual basis and full-time jobs are becoming difficult to come by. One worker that came forward points out that she has been a government care aide for 17 years, works full-time and earns $23.48 per hour which works out to about $49,000 per annum.
The Hospital Employees Union (HEU) points to some of the challenges facing care aides:
• Of all workers in hospitals and long-term care settings, care aides have the highest injury rates.
• Care aides in B.C. are three times more likely to strain their backs than construction workers, and twice as likely as RNs.
• During a typical day, a care aide will lift 38 patients into bed, or from a bed to a chair. The cumulative weight of all patients lifted in a day has been estimated to be 1.8 tons.
• Residents in B.C.'s care homes receive an average of 2.8 hours of direct care, per day. HEU is advocating for 3.5 hours of direct care per resident, per day.
The current average age of care aides in B.C. is 45 while a quarter of them are currently over 55 in what is a physically demanding job. For those suited and willing to do this work, it would appear that the job prospects are reasonably good. In addition to the 13,000 publicly employed workers there are an estimated 20,000 more private care aide jobs in B.C.
While this trio of recent hires are fresh and keen to the role and are enjoying their new careers, they can already point to certain things they would like to see improved.
"Something that I noticed right away and am becoming more aware of every day are the serious issues surrounding mental health. There needs to not only be more discussions pertaining to mental health, but there also needs to be more education provided for our health care staff to provide the best holistic care possible," said Ludwig.
"Now that I am out in the field working full time I have never second guessed my life as an HCA. I love it! Having a job that allows me to interact with people from all walks of life within the community is very rewarding. Working as a team alongside doctors, nurses, recreation, physio, dietary, and housekeeping, makes it possible to provide holistic care not only to our patients/residents but also to the families as well,” enthuses Ludwig.
"The greatest satisfaction to me is being able to make someone smile, laugh, and make them feel as comfortable as possible," said Weis. His main challenges include his height and the fact that he is male in a female dominated field. Weis must be extra careful not to injure his back while doing this work and finds that sometimes it takes time for female residents to feel comfortable with a male caregiver.
One of our newer HCAs says that while "I would like to see IHA provide more recreation therapy and better food for the residents, there’s something very rewarding about being a Health Care Assistant. I consider it an honour to be able to help and assist someone perform activities of daily living that I take for granted every day. There is something so fulfilling knowing that you have made a difference and have somehow impacted someone’s quality of life.”
Currently HCAs must be registered with the B.C. Care Aide and Community Health Worker Registry (CACHWR) in order to work in government facilities. Changes are currently underway to address some of the loopholes where workers can avoid this step by working exclusively in private facilities. The formation of a new nursing college may include oversight of the care worker’s registry which is important for ensuring care aides are qualified and doing their jobs well.
Archie sums it up well:
“As an HCA you need to have that caring ability; to like working with people and have patience. One of my instructors in clinical told me that “we can teach you the theory part of this job, but we can’t teach you to feel compassion for a client.”
“I have a lot of respect for the HCAs. The job comes with its challenges, but it also comes with great rewards that money cannot buy. I raise my hands up with gratitude for all the work the health care assistants do. I am excited for this new chapter in my life. I am open and willing to learn and grow. I get great satisfaction knowing that I am helping someone and making a difference in their life.”