“This is unlike any work I’ve done. You can’t even stop to grieve”: Why a retired homicide detective and his son are volunteering at a long-term care facility
I spent 29 years serving on the Toronto police force, and the last eight as a homicide detective. I loved it. Once I investigated a shooting at a World Cup celebration, another time a jailhouse hit. A homicide detective’s life is fast-paced, exhausting, time-consuming. You get called to work, and you might not stop for 72 or 96 hours. There’s an adrenalin that keeps pushing you forward. The staff on the front lines of Covid-19 are putting in that same type of effort right now.
When I turned 50, I retired from the force: an attractive job opportunity had come up, and I felt I’d done everything that I’d set out to do as a police officer. So I retired, and eventually started work as a paralegal for a criminal defence lawyer. Since mid-March, I’ve been working from my home in Markham, where I live with my wife, Julie, and my 21-year-old son, Jack. A few weeks ago, I saw a social media post from a friend whose brother lives in Participation House, a home in Markham for adults who live with severe physical or developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and spina bifida. On April 9, staff learned that 10 of the 42 residents and two workers had tested positive for Covid. That day, dozens of personal support workers walked off the job.
The employees left to care for the residents reminded me of homicide detectives on the job. They were working double or triple shifts, sleeping tucked away in corners in the residence, grabbing three or four hours where they could before waking up to start work all over. That night, the remaining staffers put the residents to bed. They realized that in a few hours the residents would wake up and need breakfast, but no one else was coming. Of the 80 people usually on staff, only eight were left to care for the home’s 42 residents.
My friend said the facility was desperate for help. He talked about how much support they needed to keep their residents safe and cared for. Our family discussed it that night around the dinner table. “It looks like what they need the most are warm bodies to help,” I said. My son immediately leapt at the opportunity. “Yeah, let’s do it,” he said. We figured we’d go in and help with whichever chores—maintenance, repairs, dishwashing—were falling by the wayside during the staffing shortage.
The next afternoon, we walked into Participation House alongside eight other people who had answered the call. One was a nurse who wasn’t practising, and others were personal support workers from an agency. The staff gave us a crash course in the PPE— face shields, masks, gowns, gloves—we’d be wearing to protect ourselves and the residents. Participation House is divided into six houses, and each one has a staging area outfitted with the proper equipment, where we could don and doff our PPE, wash our hands, disinfect our phones and dispose of our gear safely. We weren’t scared. We were healthy and ready to work.
It quickly became clear that the staff didn’t need help with chores, but hands-on support for the residents. We were thrown into the fire fast; the staff was so busy that they had maintenance men teach us how to care for the residents properly. They’d worked at the facility for 30 years, so they understood the care the residents needed as well as anybody. I was floored. I thought, Oh my god, these people need attention.
Jack and I covered the afternoon shift, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., nearly every day for three weeks. Most of the residents at Participation House are confined to wheelchairs, so they rely on PSWs for essential care: feeding, bathing, clothing and mobility. We come in, feed them, keep them hydrated and keep them company. We soon learned the nuances of each resident’s routine. Little things, like how certain residents like to be positioned in bed, can make a huge difference in managing their anxiety.
It’s challenging for them to be so isolated. Each house has a courtyard, a school, and a cafeteria, where residents usually socialize with one another—they’re a family. But part of our job is to ensure that people are social distancing, that they’re not wandering around. They’ve been isolated in very small spaces. The toughest job is helping them get ready for bed. They all require mechanical lifts to get out of their wheelchairs and into bed, and the technicalities were tricky at first. When we started, I said to Jack, “Take your time, pay attention to the details.” But he adapted faster than I did. He can buzz around and look after everyone’s needs without blinking an eye. He’s correcting me, too, when I’ve used the mechanical slings incorrectly or nearly given the wrong food to residents with special dietary needs. It’s the most time we’ve spent together in as long as I can remember. Watching him do this work, I appreciate him more than I ever have.
Another huge part of our job is entertaining the residents and keeping their spirits up. Monopoly is popular, and so is video chatting with their families. When we come into their home, we’re dressed in full PPE—when we arrived, it must have felt to the residents like aliens descending on the facility. It’s easier for them to recognize our voices now. The people we’re caring for are thankful. They know we’re they’re to help. They ask us if we’re coming back.
Some residents are afraid of the virus, the ones who have the developmental capabilities to understand what’s happening. Covid-19 is painful enough for healthy people. For somebody who lacks mobility, a fever or a cough is incredibly distressing. You can’t even turn yourself over in bed to make yourself more comfortable, or give yourself some water to ease the pain in your throat. It’s an ongoing battle for everyone.
In the three weeks I’ve been volunteering, six of the home’s 42 residents have died of Covid-19. Some of those deaths happened quickly. One of the first residents who passed away was a woman we had seen on our first or second day, who didn’t display any outward physical symptoms. It was shocking how fast she died after her diagnosis. As sad as it is, you have to keep moving forward. I’ve been in the death business all my life. Death is always a difficult thing. This is their home, and these people are their family. Many of the residents know that they’re sick, and they know that others have died. But we can’t stop to grieve, at least not right away—the needs of the other residents are too great, and there is too much more to do. We’re going to be collectively grieving these deaths in the weeks, months and years to come.
I’m still working from home, getting up in the morning to work from about 6 a.m. until about 2 p.m., when I get ready to go to Participation House for 3. In the midst of this, each member of our family has slept on our own floors to maintain distance. My son is on the third floor, I’m on the main floor and my wife is staying in the basement. We cross paths, but we’re careful and use masks and gloves when we need them. When Jack and I come home, we go into the garage, strip down, and enter the house through the laundry room. We immediately wash our clothes and shower. At Participation House, they check your temperature when you come in for a shift and when you leave. As long as you decontaminate by hand-washing and not touching your face, you’re likely going to keep yourself safe.
I think the facility is turning a corner. Nurse practitioners and family doctors from the community have taken on shifts, and nurses from Markham Stouffville Hospital were temporarily redeployed to help, too. The deaths have dropped dramatically, and the illness is being managed now. I hope it continues. I wonder now why it took until a crisis like this for me to get involved. I spent 30 years in public service, but this is unlike any work I’ve ever done. There’s so much need in our communities, but it’s hidden until moments like this bring it to the surface. If there is anything to be learned from this, it’s that we should all be more proactive.