By Maureen Latta
“I help the seniors meet their personal needs, whether it be dressing, eating, bathing, or moving from the bed to the wheelchair.”
— Donna Shaw, Health Care Aide
Donna Shaw works as a Health Care Aide at Evergreen Extended Care, a multi-level care seniors’ facility in Powell River. She has been working in the Health Care Assistant field for 29 years. As a high-school student, she spent every Friday volunteering with seniors at Gorge Road Hospital in Victoria. When she graduated, it was a natural choice to make caregiving a career. In 1984, Shaw did a 13-week training program at Camosun College, one of the first years that training was offered as a college-level course. At Evergreen Extended Care, Shaw is a permanent, full-time employee working 12-hour shifts.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Health Care Assistant profession?
The biggest change really stems from the type of people that live in the facilities now because it used to be, back 20 years ago, people didn’t live as long and seniors’ care was different then. There was intermediate care, extended care that you travelled through—the phases of senior care so to speak—and now it’s multilevel care. And we’re seeing a lot of different types of diseases now. Back in the late 80s, we didn’t see Huntington’s, we didn’t see Pick’s disease, we didn’t see Lewy Bodies. Over the years they’ve got good at diagnosing and recognizing different types of dementia. The treatments and the symptoms can be different. So as medicine learns more about those things then that impacts the way that we can care for the seniors, because we know more—so you’re a more effective caregiver. That change in itself brings about all kinds of philosophical changes because once you understand something better you realize, oh, that’s why that’s happening, therefore we can do this to make it better for the seniors, which makes it better for us, and better for the families.
What’s the most important thing to know for someone who might be considering a career as a Health Care Assistant?
I think they really need to spend some time volunteering in a facility. Communication is such a big part of what we do, communicating with seniors, with families, with coworkers. And there’re different avenues in seniors care. There’s extended care, there’s Olive Devaud, assisted living, home care. Most of us have our niche that we’re good at, and it’s important to know yourself, to really have a handle on who you are, to recognize which avenue of seniors care is your thing. Some people are awesome at home care, but in a facility maybe they’re not so good because that’s not their thing. It’s a very different setting. Globally, you’re doing the same thing, you’re helping seniors, but in a very different way. That’s why it’s really important to know yourself, especially when you’re working with people with dementia and diseases. Their behaviour is going to trigger you. Chances are their behaviour is going to be off because even with a stroke their behaviour and emotions can be off. We all have issues, we all have triggers in our life, and you really need to have a handle on those so that you can do your job well. Everyone wants to do their job well. And if you know yourself you can do your job better because then you’re not allowing life to make you react in a way you don’t choose to, because it’s very dynamic, it can be very dynamic.
What are some of the drawbacks or challenges of the job?
There are some avenues of personal care that can be quite shocking to people that aren’t in health care. Somebody when they’re doing their training might think, oh my gosh, I didn’t know I had to do that. If you’re going to do home care or you’re working assisted living, you don’t have to do that on a daily basis. You have to learn how to do that to graduate to be a professional because the type of care that’s delivered can vary quite greatly. People with certain diseases and lack of mobility can have problems with their elimination and you need to intervene to help them do those things, and that is not what most people would be comfortable doing. Assisted living is very different care than extended care due to the fact that the seniors are much more able-bodied. A lot of people who live at home with their spouse and children, they need help but they don’t need the level of help of extended care. So when students are doing their courses they go through home care, Olive Devaud and extended care and so they [students] have to do those things that they might not want to do on a daily basis. They have to learn how to do them, but just know that you might not have to do that every day, depending on where you work.
What’s the best thing about the job?
The best thing is the little rewards that you get. Like somebody that maybe hasn’t spoken in three months looks at you and says good morning. I had this gentleman one time, he was coming down to his room and I could tell by the look of him something was off. He was having a problem. I walked up and called him by name and I said, what’s the matter. He looked at me and he was frazzled and he said, I don’t know but you’ll know what I need. He didn’t know what he needed. He was having a moment, and he had big needs, but he was like, oh, it’s you, you’re going to know what to do, thank heavens. So that was a little moment that made the whole day worthwhile because he didn’t have to worry anymore. Those personal moments make it worthwhile.
Are there a lot of positions available? I understand people start out working as casuals.
People don’t always stay in this profession for a long time. They come, they go. Younger people they move around, they say I want to branch out, I want to go to the city, I want to go to the Island, so according to their life, they leave town, they get married, their kids play hockey, their spouses get transferred, so there’s always a need for casuals.
You always start out casual, taking sick calls. When I phone in sick or take holidays, it’s a casual who comes in to work for me. All the hours are kept track of for seniority, and as job postings come up, you’re awarded jobs based on your seniority. You’re called to work by the scheduling clerks in order of your seniority. So the more work you do, the more work you get; and the more work you’re offered, the more choices you get. Because when you first start out, you pretty much take whatever shift you can get because it’s work.
A lot of people choose to be casual because it gives them more freedom in their lives. One of my coworkers worked casual the whole time her children were growing up and didn’t make it permanent until her children had graduated high school. So once she reached a large amount of seniority, she could say, I don’t want to work weekends anymore, and I don’t want that shift, and I want to work these shifts, and she could work the shifts she wanted because she was offered everything.
As a care aide, they can work in the acute-care hospital as well. Some of the care aides really like that, working one-on-one in the hospital as an extra pair of hands. They like that environment. As a casual, you can work multiple places, but each one would have a different scheduling clerk calling you. Especially people who are new to the industry, the excitement and interest of working in the acute-care hospital—some of the girls really find that they like that challenge, that variety. If you work in the hospital, what you’re doing is, of course, definitely to your skill set. You don’t have a patient load or you don’t have a huge amount of responsibility. You’re doing one on one, someone needs you to sit with the senior and keep an eye on them and you’re doing that, because right now there’s a lot of seniors in the hospital awaiting placement, so you might be helping with them, or you might be working as an extra pair of hands up on Psychiatry. And those are all things you can choose to work. You don’t have to, it’s all choices. Some of the casuals also work in some of the group homes. There are so many different avenues that open up for you with this training. Evergreen and Olive Devaud can be very physically demanding jobs, so after 10 or 15 years, you might think, physically I could really use a break, so you might stay with the career but change worksites.
How mobile is this profession?
It’s all changed recently in the last few years. You can do what’s called “port” your seniority. If I go casual to casual or get a casual position in a different health authority, I can take my seniority with me. As a permanent, if I am a successful applicant in a permanent posting in another facility, I can bring my sick time and my holiday days with me. Under our collective agreement, any facility that bargains under the same collective agreement, I can do that with. The government facilities in the province all bargain together. Vancouver Coastal Health has one seniority umbrella. Once I’m employed by Vancouver Coastal Health, I can apply at any Vancouver Coastal site for a job, so it’s very easy to move amongst Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. So that’s a very immediate option, if I’m looking at Vancouver or Burnaby or wherever, I can shuffle very easily.
And the wage?
It’s a pretty good wage. You work for it, but it’s a good wage. We don’t have a lot of levels to our wage. It’s about $22 per hour. If you work weekends and nights, you get what’s called shift differential, so if I work nights I get a buck extra an hour; if I work weekends I get an extra whatever it is an hour. And casuals get a percentage of their holiday pay and stat holiday pay on every cheque.