Before the pandemic, Kevin Curtis organized bingo games, movie matinees and golden oldies music programs for the residents of a nursing home. As a recreation aide, he was something of a “professional friend” to the seniors he grew to love.
When the residents could no longer gather for the activities that brightened their days, Mr. Curtis tried to keep their spirits up by visiting their rooms to chat or play dominoes.
But as COVID-19 tore through the facility, he found himself putting dead seniors into body bags.
The experience so haunted him that he was unable to keep working and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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“There wasn’t even any time to grieve,” he said. “Putting your friend in a cremation bag should not be something that you check off of a task list. … Like you have to clean up a body and then you have to get somebody a glass of apple juice and then talk to somebody with a smile on your face.”
Many workers in seniors’ homes devastated by COVID-19 outbreaks are traumatized and require continuing counselling and support for conditions such as depression and anxiety, according to a recent report from Ontario’s independent commission into long-term care.
Staffing collapsed in many nursing homes, and those who continued to work were overwhelmed, the commission said. Some employees felt powerless to provide adequate care or ensure that residents died with dignity. Workers still struggle with feelings of helplessness, guilt and regret.
“The staff who soldiered on during the pandemic and bear the scars must not be forgotten,” the report says.
Long-term care workers have had greater exposure to “significant stressors,” such as an excessive workload and witnessing extreme suffering, which can lead to psychological distress and mental-health conditions, said Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist and chair of the Canadian Psychological Association’s traumatic-stress section.
More than 60 per cent of nurses who worked in long-term care homes with large outbreaks during the first wave of the pandemic reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, according to a survey last fall by the Ontario Nurses’ Association.
At least half of personal support workers based in seniors’ homes are dealing with some form of mental-health issue, said Miranda Ferrier, chief executive of the Ontario Personal Support Workers Association. She also said alcohol and drug addiction are on the rise.
“They have experienced such traumatic events that typically people would only experience in the military or police front line,” she said. “So that’s why we’re seeing the spiral happen.”
Mr. Curtis, 23, was not prepared for the toll that working through the early days of the pandemic would take on him. More than three-quarters of the residents at his nursing home in Mississauga got sick last spring, and 21 died. Many nurses and personal support workers were also infected and couldn’t work. (He asked that the facility not be identified.)
As a gesture of respect, the home’s remaining employees decided they would be the ones to prepare deceased residents for transport to funeral homes, rather than having temporary workers handle the bodies. Because of the outbreaks, funeral attendants were not allowed to enter the facilities.
Mr. Curtis, who did not provide hands-on care to residents as part of his normal job, received no extra training for his grim new duties. His co-workers called him “young legs” and had him push stretchers with corpses down hallways and into the elevator to meet waiting funeral home vans.
In all, he helped bag and move the bodies of five residents, three of whom had been at the facility since he arrived straight out of college a couple of years earlier. One was a “bingo shark” who would jokingly demand a new caller whenever Mr. Curtis didn’t pick her numbers. Another lady, whose body he helped clean, would poke him in the arm whenever he zoned out and then howl with laughter, despite not being able to speak owing to her dementia.
“I was all about the residents. That’s why I did so much more for them than I … was trained to do. Because I loved them and I wanted them to get the best anything possible – whether it was care, after-death care, anything,” he said through tears. “But that’s what you feel in the moment and then you’re diagnosed with PTSD.”
After taking a week off last May to rest, Mr. Curtis had a panic attack on the morning he was due to go back to work.
“I just couldn’t do it. It came out of nowhere to me at the time. But, I mean, obviously it didn’t. It was the constant having to suppress everything so that you can take care of everybody that you need to take care of. And then, you know, the crash is inevitable at that point.”
He took a leave of absence and was diagnosed with PTSD last summer. He later began receiving benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board because his condition is considered a workplace injury.
A year later, he still avoids driving by the nursing home where he worked, taking longer routes so he doesn’t have to be reminded of what happened. He suffers from anxiety, low energy and memory issues.
His emotional scars are so deep, he says he will never work in long-term care again. Instead, he wants to become a plumber.
“I can promise you, no matter how much therapy I can get, I will not be able to go back to what I was doing before,” he said. “You don’t expect a war veteran with PTSD to go back to Iraq or wherever the war is after they’re feeling okay, right? It’s the same thing.”
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