Seniors are the fastest growing population group in Canada today. There are currently five million seniors living in Canada, a number that is expected to double in the next twenty-five years. By the year 2031, a quarter of Canada’s population will be over age sixty-five. Right now, one in eleven–approximately half a million seniors– over age sixty-five has dementia. That number is also expected to double by 2038.
It’s estimated that ten percent of seniors experience some form of abuse. That number is thought to be higher for those with dementia, but because they are often unable to remember or communicate, stats are unknown.
When I was in college, taking the “Personal Support Worker” course, I did my placement in the dementia unit of a nursing home. My teacher thought I had the right personality for it. And I did seem to have a knack for soothing, reassuring and redirecting. I enjoyed the people; helping them gave me a sense of pride and fulfillment. But I didn’t enjoy working in an environment that felt so much like an institution. We woke people before the sun rose. And, yes, there were times when they were hauled from bed, kicking and screaming. They had dementia. We were strangers to them, entering their dark room, filling it with loud voices and harsh, artificial light, pulling the covers from their bodies as they struggled awake.
I’d kick and scream too. And it bothered me. In my opinion, these people had earned the right to sleep in and wake when they were ready, not when someone told them it was time, not to “keep the place running on schedule”. It also bothered me how some of the staff spoke to residents as though they were children, or simply had no empathy or compassion for the people or the disease. So many, it seemed, were burnt out; a problem perhaps created by government cutbacks that led to short-staffed homes full of over-worked employees. I know not all homes are run that way. Many newer homes are getting away from the institution-like setting, and giving residents more flexibility and freedom to choose. I know most nursing home staff are caring, compassionate people. But I knew it wasn’t for me. I’d never be able to keep my mouth shut, or my opinions to myself, so I made the wise decision to go into home care.
My experience in the dementia unit of the home stayed with me, though. I’d never felt so conflicted as when I worked there. I loved helping people. It felt good knowing I’d made someone’s life better. But I struggled with the emotions. I cringed every time an employee called a resident “honey” or “sweetie”. I had to bite my tongue when they were a little rough or impatient with a resident because they were in a hurry. More than anything, I wondered, who looks out for these people? Will anyone know what happened five minutes or a day ago if they can’t remember how they got that bruise? Who will care about them when no one comes because watching the person they love forget them is too painful? Who will be their voice when the dementia is so far gone that they can no longer speak?
“Write what you know.” So I did. I wrote about the people and the disease. More importantly, I wrote about the truths and the emotions. I can’t remember for them, but maybe I can be their voice.