Notes from Dora Ng – WESN’s Better at Home Coordinator

On October 15th, a Vancouver Sun article announced that St. Elizabeth, a non-profit provider of home care services, will be laying-off 89 home care workers, many of whom have been with the company for15 – 20 years.The rationale is that “Vancouver Coastal Health is turning the work over to volunteers.” The authority will “now provide personal medical care only” while “services such as house cleaning, laundry, cooking or shopping are left to family, friends or a United Way program called Better at Home.”

That part of the Health Authorities’ work could be turned over to volunteers is alarming to me. Now I love the idea of volunteerism, of service, of self-less giving. We all know that WESN cannot operate at all without our dedicated and generous volunteers.

But I also love the idea that those who have worked hard and paid taxes their whole lives will be well looked after in their golden years. As a young working person it is also important to me that those who are working hard right now are able to make a decent living that can support a family. In the living wage discussion many argue that certain jobs just don’t deserve decent  wages.

But surely a profession such as home care, one that is so physically and mentally demanding, one that requires such compassion and professional knowledge, is one which the stingiest Grinch can agree deserves a living wage at the very least.

That is unfortunately not the trend that I’ve been observing in my time at WESN.

In the past three years working the Better at Home program I have witnessed a steep deterioration of both the working conditions of home support workers and the care that seniors receive. Union workers paid living wages are laid-off as the work is given to casual part-time workers paid close to minimum wage. A work day could be 8 hours long but with only 6 hours paid. Commute time is unpaid,cancellations mean no pay. Seniors who require home care often have complicated mental and physical health issues that a casual housekeeper should never have to deal with. The demographic that make up the bulk of workers in the field are single mothers, women of colour, people who are more vulnerable to poor working conditions.

Even as such we are still unable to serve all the seniors who need home support in the West End. The non-profit sector is often asked to find “efficiencies” and “creative solutions” to address challenges in the community. ”Efficient” seem to have become a euphemism for “cheaper,” and “creative” for “pay less” or “use volunteers.” Those who are caregivers will know that the work involved is so taxing that often even family members are unable to provide care. One wonders how volunteers are expected to fill this role.

It is my hope that volunteers give their time because of a desire to give back to a caring and supportive community. However, more and more it seems that volunteers are new immigrants who need local experience to get jobs, students who need hours to get into certain programs, or people who receive an allowance for volunteering. I believe this hurts both the spirit of volunteerism and our sense of community as a whole. While we struggle to serve seniors on our wait-list for subsidized services, I do not believe using volunteers to do the work of home care workers is the answer, and it is my hope that it will not be our health minister’s answer either.