Opinion: COVID-19 has taken a toll on the people who care for B.C. seniors

It is time to listen carefully to the people who work in the system to learn how it can be improved for seniors, and for the people who care for them.

By Terry Lake

The province’s annual proclamation known as B.C. Seniors Care Providers Day first began in 2017, and it is a recognition I helped to establish as provincial minister of health. The proclamation coincided with a ceremony in Victoria for the B.C. Care Awards, allowing some of the continuing-care sector’s brightest lights to be celebrated by their peers, and by the health minister and members of the legislature.

Terry Lake, CEO BCCPA & EngAge BC

While this year’s in-person award ceremony has been postponed, it is more important than ever that we recognize those who work in the sector during B.C. Seniors Care Providers Day. This is because the past year has been unimaginably challenging for many of the tens of thousands of people who work on the front lines in B.C.’s care homes and retirement residences or provide support at home.

The coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 has devastated the aged-care sector in Canada — with long-term care homes being particularly hard hit. If there is a silver lining in the public health crisis the country has faced during the past year, it is that the impact on our care homes has drawn attention to the sector’s systemic challenges.

And while Canada’s continuing-care sector faces strong headwinds, nothing brings more challenges than its struggle to recruit and retain the best people to do the work. Chronic labour shortages have dogged the aged-care sector in Canada for years, and governments have been slow to implement policy recommendations that could improve the situation.

What few economic forecasters talk about is that Canada’s demographic is rapidly aging — with one-in-four Canadians being over age 65 within the coming decade. It is no wonder then that B.C.’s labour market outlook has seniors-care workers as the highest growth job category.

It takes a special kind of person to work in the seniors-care sector. Those who do it take great pride in the work they do. In a 2018 survey by B.C. Care Providers Association of over 1,200 front-line healthcare workers, 94 per cent responded that they view their work as “an honourable career.”

Asked what they valued most about their work with seniors, 76 per cent indicated that they felt they were “making a positive difference” in people’s lives. Seventy-one per cent responded that they cherished the relationships they build with clients.

However, if you ask those working in the sector — from those providing direct care and support services through to the management staff — how they feel after a year in the trenches fighting the threat of COVID, you will hear that they are almost completely drained by the experience.

That brings us to the uncomfortable question facing the continuing-care sector post-COVID: Where will it find its next generation of workers? A senior-care home staffer recently shared with our organization that it was getting harder to justify the job stress to his spouse, who feels he should opt for early retirement. His story is not unique.

It is foreseeable that the profound emotional toll of being at the centre of so much anxiety and public controversy will trigger a wave of retirements and career changes within a sector that desperately needs these individuals’ knowledge and experience in order to grow.

The fragility of our system of elder care, and the fact that Canada invests as much as one-third less in the sector than other OECD countries, is inescapable. It is time to listen carefully to the people who work in the system to learn how it can be improved for seniors, and for the people who care for them.

While it is only one date on the calendar, the people working in the continuing-care sector appreciate having a day proclaimed by government to honour them. But we must consider what our seniors-care providers do year-round, by ensuring that have the supports they need to provide the best care possible for B.C.’s seniors.


This op-ed originally appeared in Vancouver Sun.

See additional coverage featuring BCCPA — COVID-19: Fears mount of gutted front lines as the pandemic wears on