I WAS crying so hard and my despair was so deep, my husband asked if I was suicidal. I was not thinking of quitting life, but I was thinking I may have to quit the job I loved.

Opinion

I WAS crying so hard and my despair was so deep, my husband asked if I was suicidal. I was not thinking of quitting life, but I was thinking I may have to quit the job I loved.

My breakdown came after another day, another week, another month and another year of operating personal-care homes in Winnipegosis and Ste. Rose du Lac during a pandemic. My staff and I had given everything we had, and no one had died in our facilities from COVID-19. But something else had died.

I’d lost my way, my purpose, my confidence. My job was slowly killing me under the weight of a pandemic.

We walked into this pandemic already wounded. Personal-care homes in Manitoba have been chronically underfunded for years, and resident care is suffering as a result. Most homes have not seen any funding increase for basic operations in more than 10 years, even though dietary costs have increased by 36 per cent and the cost of incontinent supplies by more than 50 per cent — not to mention increases in utilities, taxes and repairs.

The average resident in a Manitoba personal-care home is more than 85 years old and has acute and complex health-care challenges, including dementia. Although residents’ needs have increased, approved staffing levels have remained the same since 2009. And now we can’t even find enough warm bodies to meet those staffing levels.

In the last year, the competition for nurses and care staff has become fierce. Our experienced nurses have been lured away to more flexible shifts and much better salaries in the private sector. Some nursing homes have lost more than 30 per cent of their employees – from front-line nurses to care aids to kitchen cooks.

Today, we’ll hire almost anyone who walks in the door in order to keep our elders clean, fed and clothed. No experience required.

The pressure on staff who have stayed has only mounted during the pandemic. For managers like me, it means having to look into the tired face of a care worker and telling her she cannot go home to her family after this shift — yet again — because I need her to stay. In fact, my operating licence requires that I make her stay or, according to the law, I’ll be understaffed.

Leaders of personal-care homes are exhausted, as cutbacks follow cutbacks: 30 years ago, approximately 10 people performed the various roles I now cram into my job description as executive director of a rural hospital, a transitional care unit, elderly-persons housing and 85 personal-care home beds.

And right now, a reader may be thinking, "Suck it up, Princess."

I wouldn’t be surprised, because I’ve heard worse. The name-calling comes in emails and texts, and to my face. It comes from people angry that our homes are too restrictive to visitors… or not restrictive enough. It comes from family members upset with the care their loved ones are receiving or, more likely, not receiving.

Community members I grew up with have told me my father would be ashamed of me if he were still alive.

I know I’m not alone. Every day I hear similar stories from colleagues within the Manitoba Association of Residential and Community Care Homes for the Elderly (MARCHE). Every day they give their heart and soul to their work in a place that is more a war zone than a care home. And like me, they’re struggling.

I hope, like me, they reach out and get the help they need before they experience their own mental-health crisis. Through professional counselling, medication and a caring doctor, I am learning to let go of the despair, shame, fear and overwhelming sense of failure I felt. I now know the current state of personal-care homes and health care is not my burden to carry alone.

I don’t know what the long-term solution is — but I do know our current system of caring for our most vulnerable citizens is broken and that if you want people to provide care, you need to support them.

Governments need to provide adequate funding for day-to-day operations, for essential repairs to personal-care homes and hospitals, and for training more qualified workers.

Individual Manitobans need to demand better care for the elderly, and respect and honour those who work in the system. That might mean a kind word, or volunteering alongside our staff, or coming out of retirement to apply for a job with us.

You’d be welcome. Just bring your love and compassion.

Michelle Quennelle is the executive director of both the Ste. Rose Health Centre and the Winnipegosis & District Health Centre. She sits on the council of CEOs at the Manitoba Association of Residential & Community Care Homes for the Elderly (MARCHE).