Now that the governments are looking ahead to a phased relaxing of the lockdown, it is time to do some math. We look back and to our present process of recovery. Among the population that was affected the most by the pandemic we have, unquestionably, the seniors. But the crisis ended up revealing a lot more than we expected, exposing health, social and governmental issues that demand urgent change. In a conversation for the show Here’s The Thing, airing on Camões TV, Manuel DaCosta welcomed the portuguese social worker José Dias, who has been active within our community and in Canada for over three decades.
Manuel DaCosta: Tell us a little bit more about the type of work that you do.
José Dias: I am a social worker by background, so I have been working with communities for many decades since I came to Canada, in 1981. My passion has been always to help people. I found that social work is my passion and I focused mainly in seniors, elder abuse and mental health. Then I shifted into palliative care, which is more or less my area of specialty now. The portuguese community have been very vocal throughout the decades and one person comes to mind: the doctor Mário Silva. Going back to the nineties, we started a movement to help a portuguese individual that had a mental illness and was about to be deported. So, we were able to mobilize the community and the government to address the issue of deportation, in particular with people with mental illness and HIV. I have always been into community activism in the portuguese community. In the Canadian context I focused on undocumented children with disabilities. Doing home care is what I love the most.
MDC: What kind of individuals really have the ability to embrace this this kind of career such as you have?
JD: Well, being a caregiver has been a natural thing for me, based on my personal experience with my family dynamics. I was very close to my mom and she died when I was ten years old. But before she died, I was actually the person in the family feeding her and brushing her hair, making sure that she was comfortable… but I really didn’t know what was happening. I think that we all have the capacity to help. Some of us may help by feeding and caring directly, and some people may be able to just open the door and facilitate the process of engagement in making life easier for someone else.
MDC: How hard is it to do this kind of work?
JD: I don’t see it as a hard job, I see it as a human being helping out a human being. We all have a responsibility to make life easier. What happens is that some people, for whatever reason, may not be able to ask for and access resources. It can be a person with a disability, intellectual, physical or mental condition, or combination, or someone like a senior. If there’s someone like me who has no issue coming to your door and the person says “listen I need these resources, do you have them available?”, then there’s no conflicts. It’s not hard for me to do that at all and over the years I have enjoyed collaborating with different partners because he takes all kinds of individuals to make home care successful.
MDC: We’ve gone through a pandemic and we have seen the number of deaths that have happened, especially in long term care facilities. Why wasn’t this problem brought to the forefront before so we could prevent such tragedies?
JD: I think some communities are very engaged and assuring that the seniors are well taken care off. Some communities are a bit more passive, so they pass the responsibility on to the caregiver, the nurses, the doctors and so forth. The governments are in the business of regulating, but they’re not in the business of providing the day to day care. So, what happens is that more resources were needed for healthcare. Then we were hit with the COVID-19. A lot of people were not expecting this to happen and the seniors weren’t expecting this to happen, but the governments should have been anticipating this kind of event, they should have been preparing and to have the protective equipment for the health care providers. So, of course when they were hit with COVID-19 and those providers did not have the PP, it affected them. What we need to do is have this kind of conversations and, in the right time, make these political individuals accountable and ensure that they plan.
MDC: How much does the government help the people who don’t have quite sufficient amounts of money for people like yourself to come in and take care of them?
JD: So, the person qualifies for CPP, which is a Canadian Pension Plan, and if the CPP is low – because they had a low paying job or they didn’t have enough contributions – then there’s the supplement. The supplement will bring it up to a base line income for all seniors, but we do know that it’s not sufficient. So, I would say that probably 85% of the clientele that I have worked for in the portuguese community, as an example, cannot afford a retirement home. A retirement home in Toronto strikes at $2400, and it’s not a high end, it’s just a very basic accommodation. Because the high end, we can go to $16000. So, we’re just talking about the average senior. They wouldn’t be able to afford a retirement home. The other thing the research that indicates that people preferred to stay home as long as possible and, in fact, they would like to die at home if it is an option for them. So then what happens is if they don’t have the resources at home? The government provides a certain amount of hours, but there is a cap in terms of how many hours of personal support for workers to come in and give the person a shower, help with medications and offering very basic support to maintain the person’s independence at their home. If once the hours are exhausted at the end of the week, because there’s the cap, the person needs to pay privately. If the person is not able to pay privately, then it becomes a major problem and then the possibility of admission into a long term care facility. Then becomes another issue with the waiting times and everything else. The waiting times for a long term care facility these days can take up to five years in some of them.
MDC: This pandemic has caused an increase of about 500% in usage of food banks. What does that say about our society?
JD: That there’s a lot more hidden poverty then we really know. That’s one of the facts and the other one is we need to make the politicians accountable and really engage. We vote for them every four years. I tell my clients to speak to them when they come to their doors. Make sure to say “I’m giving you a vote. What are you doing for me?” It is quite significant.