Aging Population Increases Personal Care Role

PSW program trains staff to work with elderly; job status growing as salaries average $36,000
By Rosemary McCracken, For Postmedia News May 5, 2012

Kerry Harrison divides her work week between two elderly women. She spends four weekday mornings in one woman’s Toronto home, and three weekday evenings and Sunday mornings in the other’s. Both women are in the early stages of dementia, and Harrison helps them bathe, prepares a meal, does light housework and spends plenty of time chatting and doing crossword puzzles with them.

“It doesn’t seem like work,” says Harrison, 45, who receives $20 an hour for her services. “I feel like I’m being paid to hang out with people I like.”

Harrison is a personal support worker (PSW), a career that will see an increase in demand in coming years as Canada’s population ages. After many years of working as a nanny, she completed a college personal support worker program last spring. The two-semester, 700-hour program trains students for basic front-line health care work in hospitals, homes for the elderly, group homes, hospices and as support workers in private homes. Tuition for the two semesters of the 2012-2013 school year is $3,201.

“I’d come to the end of a 10-year job and decided to look into other options,” Harrison says. “The idea of spending time with older people appealed to me. I’ve always been comfortable around the elderly.”

Many Canadian provinces have implemented mandatory certification for health care support workers or are working toward higher training standards. In Alberta, health care support workers are called “health care aides,” and certified training is not currently mandatory. But Alberta Health and Wellness has developed and maintains a competency training curriculum that has been adopted by most public and private post-secondary institutions in the province that offer health care aide programs.

With a critical shortfall of 5,000 health care aides estimated for 2016, the province is now in the middle of a nine-year plan to ensure an adequate supply of support workers. This includes raising compensation rates to retain existing workers and recruiting more skilled professionals.

Earlier this year, it launched a recruitment campaign, inviting applications for a limited number of grant-funded spaces in two Alberta training colleges.

“Demographics tell us there will be an increase in the need for skilled sup-port workers and a rise in home care,” says Nora Way, dean of health studies at Medicine Hat College in Medicine Hat, Alta. “Right now, 100 per cent of our graduates find employment. Many are offered jobs before they finish the program.”

A George Brown College survey of graduates conducted in Ontario last August showed that 86 per cent of graduates of the PSW program were employed and received an average salary of $36,844. “Some graduates go on with their studies after they finish the program,” says Deanna Lunn, chair of the college’s school of nursing. PSW graduates can apply for admission to the college’s practical nursing program.

Martha Niever knew that Medicine Hat College’s health care aide program would bring job opportunities. She and her husband and their two young sons immigrated to Canada three-and-a-half years ago from Colombia where she had worked as an accountant. She decided it would be too difficult to qualify as an accountant here, and opted to train as an aide because she’d enjoyed volunteer work with the elderly in Colombia. She completed the college’s program in February and is now employed as a casual nursing attendant at Medicine Hat Hospital, and hopes to get full-time work soon.

Harrison says she probably could have found work as a private support worker without the George Brown course. “But I’m much more comfort-able having taken the course,” she adds. “I learned all the practicalities of the job: how to lift a person with-out injuring your back, illnesses that the elderly are susceptible to and their repercussions. It also taught me how to communicate properly with older people, how to really listen.”

Applicants to health care support worker programs must clear a police check to protect vulnerable clients. Students learn the skills they need to assist the elderly and disabled with their personal and household needs in both classroom and lab settings. They are also given supervised clinical placements in institutions and in the community.

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