'This was win-win:' Perley Health and Algonquin College create joint PSW program

By Joanne Laucius

Valerie Little had a background in sales. She had quit work and was caring for her mother at home when a visiting personal support worker planted the seed of an idea for a mid-life career change.

“You’re good at this. You should think about doing it,” the PSW urged Little.

Little, 53, did think about it. In January, she was among the first graduates of a joint program between Algonquin College and Perley Health, the first of its kind in Ottawa.

Perley Health offers the learning space for the PSW students, which includes a classroom located in a renovated dining room at the centre. The students get to be immersed in the learning experience.

There’s another benefit for Perley Health— in an environment where supply of PSWs does not meet demand, it has a home-gown crop of potential workers. Among its roles, Perley Health offers assistance to patients in their homes, and it has assisted living apartments and long-term care services. They all require PSWs. Out of the 20 graduates, eight were hired by Perley Health.

Jennifer Plant, the director of clinical practice at Perley Health, says the program is not aimed at producing PSWs for the health centre. Some of the graduates accepted jobs closer to home, others are taking the registered practical nurse course and a couple have taken time off to travel. But having the course at the centre has had a fortunate side effect for the Perley.

“The greatest benefit has been the early interaction between learners, resident and families, PSWs are such an integral part of the care team. They see a lot of opportunities early,” says Plant.

“This was win-win,” says Barbara Foulds, dean of health, public safety and community studies at Algonquin College. “For the institution, they got to know the students and can offer positions. It has helped build that sense of community and wanting to be part of that institution. It’s changing the conversation about the work and the work environment.”

The question of how to train PSWs for a workforce that faces shortages caused by retiring workers, a rapid churn rate and an aging population is one that has to be solved by all of the players — government, educators and the institutions and agencies that hire them, says Foulds. “We are all in this together.”

Algonquin has one cohort of about 90 students in its PSW program at the Woodroffe campus starting in September, and another 40 starting in January, as well as another class of about 20 students currently studying at Perley Health.

Word has been circulating about the Perley Health program and another Ottawa long-term care facility has reached out to Algonquin about replicating it. “Other people have heard about it and they’re coming to us,” says Foulds.

The shortage of PSWs means persuading the potential workforce to think differently about PSW work, she says. “We have to change the conversation. This is one of the most critical — the most critical — care provider in the system today.”

It’s a difficult job, mentally and physically, says Little. But she enjoys working with seniors and finds that her job allows her to develop a relationship with the Perley residents.

“They have so much to offer. A lot of the residents are in their 90s. They’ve lived that long, and they deserve the best care they can get.”

Institutions are recognizing that giving PSWs an opportunity to develop their skills helps not only to improve the workforce but also in worker retention. Little, for example, has taken a course in “Gentle Persuasive Approaches,” a program that helps workers understand dementia and how to respond effectively, and she wears the certification pin proudly on her lanyard. There’s another course in palliative care essentials. One Perley PSW worked with a pharmacist to create a reference card for medications and their side effects.

“All of us together could start to unlock people’s ideas,” says Foulds. “It’s a wonderful profession.”