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Staff shortages at long term care facilities are unsustainable, workers say

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – When I need to put a face to austerity, I often picture the state of our long term care facilities that have been subjected to budget cuts and government neglect. 

Over the last years we have heard (and featured) stories about nursing homes waiting times for beds, shrinking food budgets and downsized rec programs. It’s scary stuff.

See also: How can it not affect them? Residents pay for government austerity, long term care workers say

We also hear from overworked staff, often working shorthanded, unable to provide residents with the full care they need and deserve.

This is bad for the residents and stressful for staff, says Louise Riley, who has seen her share of changes working as a Continuing Care Assistant (CCA) for 38 years now. 

Riley is also a CUPE activist who is part of a campaign, More caring hands, that aims to raise awareness of working conditions in long term care facilities.  

“Most of the new facilities have what they call units or pods, and there’s only two CCAs to a unit. And if one of those employees calls in sick and they’re not able to replace that person, then you have one CCA that’s looking after what could be anywhere between 12 to 15 residents by themselves,” Riley says.

“You still have to make sure that these people are fed, they have to get dressed, and meanwhile you have buzzers that are going off and you’re trying to answer these buzzers.” 

Sometimes you just can’t do it all, Riley says.

“You’re trying to do five and six things at one time and one person just can’t do it. You want to make sure that the resident is healthy and fed and dry and, and turned, but you know, that doesn’t always happen in all the nursing homes.”

Some facilities are so financially stressed that the first sick employee doesn’t get replaced as a matter of policy, Riley says. As well, in many cases staff rather than being offered a choice, are mandated to work overtime. 

“They’re not getting their vacation. They’re not getting days off. They’re not getting respite, they’re burnt out,” she says.

This takes its toll, on patients, obviously, but also on staff, who sometimes end up changing careers as a result.

“People are tired, they’re burnt out, their body is sore, their body is breaking down. They’ve left and they’ve gone into home care or they’ve left the healthcare system altogether,” Riley says.

The campaign Riley is involved in revolves around a letter writing campaign to increase the staff-to-patient ratio for Nova Scotians who live in long term care to 4.1 direct care hours per resident per day.  

That’s up from a current 2.45 hours per resident.

To attract and retain staff, the campaign is also asking for a full-tuition system and a study grant for CCA students and better wages, pensions and benefits for long-term care employees.

Worker to resident ratios have not increased in 15 years, but residents tend to be sicker and need more attention.

See also: Toni MacAfee: Stretched to the breaking point, long term care workers deserve respect and proper compensation

“Many of our members are telling us that, on average, they have less than ten minutes to get each resident ready for the day,” said Louise Riley, chair of the CUPE NS Long Term Care Coordinating Committee. “Let that sink in. Ten minutes or less. How many adults without disabilities do you know that can get themselves ready for the day in that amount of time?”

“Even under the best of circumstances, even when you are a full-staffed, working in a nursing home is very hard work. And that means these workers need to be well looked after.” 

“You’re lifting, you’re tugging, you’re washing. Meanwhile, you’re not shuffling paper, you are looking after human beings, you’re looking after somebody’s mother or father.”

Visit the More Caring Hands campaign website for more information, video testimonials of long term care workers, and to send an email to your MLA.

See also: We try but we struggle. Budget cuts hit long term care facilities in Nova Scotia

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