Shernett can brighten a room just by walking in and saying good morning. Ofelia is always checking to make sure her people are okay. Esther at the front desk offers wraparound hugs that squeeze the pain away.
I got to know these three women when my mother lay dying in a North Toronto retirement home last summer. Their capable, loving care eased her passing and left those of us keeping watch humbled and amazed. Now they are in the thick of the struggle against the coronavirus.
As COVID-19 sweeps through care homes, personal support workers continue to do vital and now often dangerous work. In Ontario alone, hundreds of workers in places that care for the aged have contracted the disease. Their representatives say many of them don’t have the protective equipment they need to stay safe.
PSWs – many of them immigrants, most of them women – help residents wash and dress for the day. They change their bedding, trim their nails and check their skin for rashes. They help them eat and drink when they have trouble feeding themselves.
Just as important, they provide a dose of simple human contact. With a kind word or smile, they help break the loneliness that is the lot of many, especially at a time like this, when visitors are limited or banned and many residents are confined to their rooms.
My mother withdrew into herself in her final years. She slept through most of the day. She didn’t talk much to anyone. She ate her meals alone in the dining room. We were lucky to get much more than a “Hello, dear” when we came to visit. The vivacious, engaged, engaging woman we knew had gone away, lost in the thickets of dementia.
Her helpers drew her out. Ofelia, a cheerful Filipina housekeeper who became her best pal, would coax her to come down to the lobby for the afternoon concert. Mom would tap her foot to the beat and sometimes even stand up and move to the music. At one summer barbecue, Ofelia got her dancing on the patio. A cellphone video showed the two of them face to face, hand in hand, bopping away like schoolgirls to a pop song.
When Mom, then 90, stopped eating and getting out of bed, the helpers rallied round. Ofelia came by whenever she was on shift to chat to her. “I miss you, Diane,” she said one day. “It’s summer now. Let’s dance again at the barbecue.”
Shernett, who is from Jamaica and sings in her church choir, would breeze in with a warm greeting. She had a special knack for making Mom comfortable in her bed, propping her up and soothing her dry mouth with spoonfuls of diluted pudding or a special blend of juices she made up. “Be good, Di,” she called out as she left.
Esther, who comes from Nigeria and loves a joke, would announce her visits by saying, “I’m here to bother you again, Diane.” Before heading out, she would lean over to plant a kiss on her forehead.
Those healing physical touches are a thing of the past now, but my mom’s helpers are still at work, even though the retirement home has several confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents and staff. When we text them to ask how they are doing, they say they are all right, despite all the risks and all the new precautions they have to take. They are carrying on and doing their best.
Thank goodness for that. If this crisis teaches us anything, it is the value of people like them. Their jobs are hard, their pay and benefits poor, their clients sometimes demanding and ungrateful. Yet they embrace their work, bringing joy and love into quiet rooms all over the country.
My mother could be a difficult client before her final decline. Shernett told us with a laugh that when she would encourage her to get out of bed in the morning, Mom would simply say: “Leave me alone.” Shernett kept at it, pointing to the blue sky out the window and gently prodding her to get on with the day. Somehow she found the key. All three women saw something in her: the old Diane with the radiant smile.
Though we voiced our gratitude many times, no words can really express how much these three and the rest of her wonderful care team meant to us in the last months of her life. But this week, as they face this new challenge, I have been trying. My household is joining in the nightly ritual of banging pots and pans to say thanks to front-line workers. We make an awful racket. I don’t know if they can hear, but I just want to say: Shernett, Ofelia and Esther, that noise is for you.
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