Never before have the challenges facing the eldercare sector been so great, and the spotlight upon the workers within it so strong and forceful. Pandemic at the scale we are currently living and yes, dying through, knows no precedent and the bulk of the burden of grief and sorrow is felt most acutely by the people connected to our Villages and the homes of our fellow care providers across the country and across the planet.
COVID-19 is most deadly in the bodies of frail, older adults and, in most cases, these are the people our team members serve with grace, love and respect day in and day out. Any loss is felt deeply; I know this because I’ve seen and felt several dignity walks over my nearly nine years with Schlegel Villages. These are the solemn moments when Village life stops to honour the life of a person who passes. They gently wheel their neighbour and friend – a quilted dignity blanket adorning the body – through the Village to the front doors to meet those who will care for the final resting arrangements. The team members who knew the person best often speak, and family members share their words through tears of sorrow and of gratitude for the time they all spent together.
This tradition has been forced aside under pandemic guidelines, and this sense of closure for teams and families is but one of many casualties. The critical visits by family and volunteers and the loss of their important presence in daily life is another. Teams often relied on this extra support and they are now working harder than ever, even in the face of staffing challenges in some locations. There have been team members unable to work throughout the sector because they are positive for COVID-19 and there are others who have underlying health conditions themselves and can not take the risk. There are also those with families to care for and simply can’t come to work.
But there are many more who have rallied together, working extra long shifts every day to ensure the residents they love and care for have the support they need. I was able to connect with three of them from the Village of Erin Meadows long-term care in Mississauga to ask why they show up every day, why they feel so deeply, and what gives them hope when very little is offered in the headlines and news reports.
Registered Nurse Branca Vidovic has been at Erin Meadows for 17 years and her friends describe her as having a “heart of gold.” She’s been working long stretches in a row during the pandemic, always with a smile in her eyes and under her mask.
“I found it impossible to leave and go at the time of the crisis, when they need me the most,” Branca says. “In spite of realizing the risks of the COVID-19 virus, I am determined to offer my service around the clock no matter what happens to me.”
“I humbly ask my team members to be brave and if we take the safety measures seriously,” she adds, “we will be safe and fine.”
PSW Eunice Ehgie echoes the same thoughts about Personal Protective Equipment and safety precautions, noting that outbreak protocols are not a new phenomenon. “We have PPE,” she tells her fellow team members. “We should not worry.”
Eunice says “love for residents” is what brings her to The Village every day, and she offers a piece of advice to the worried families who are unable to visit their loved ones.
“Keep hope alive and soon it will end,” she says.
The loss of physical connection among families and residents is especially difficult during this crisis, says Chi Awadh, a team member with 15 years experience at Erin Meadows. She says it’s important for team members, especially when times are most difficult, to “take a walk in the residents’ and their families’ shoes.”
When someone loses a loved one, their grief and anger are real: they’re angry at the virus; angry at the speed it can take a frail person; angry that it took precious time away from them, but they are not angry at the teams who care so deeply.
“Talk to us”, she urges families. “Nothing will last forever and do not worry; your loved ones are in good hands.”
She finds hope in the fact that everything in life and death happens for a reason, and her smile and her optimism are beacons of hope within The Village.
There are stories of struggle and loss that dominate headlines today and from governments to industries to the health sector, there will be time for a review of what could have been done differently to manage the pandemic we’re currently managing on a moment-by-moment basis.
But as we move forward, we must honour the most caring of people who answer a sacred responsibility to care for those who are most vulnerable through pandemic and through normal end of life, is misguided at best. The communal heart of the true caregiver is the most noble and selfless of all, and despite the overwhelming challenges, it tirelessly beats for those it serves.