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Caroline Grammer, Tova Houpt, Elaine Beemer, and Alison Drenikow
From left: Caroline Grammer of the Social Service Worker – Gerontology (SSWG) diploma program has been working with recent graduates Tova Houpt and Elaine Beemer as well as current student Alison Drenikow to help support and advocate for seniors. (Photos: submitted)

July 9, 2020

A three-pronged initiative from Seneca’s Social Service Worker – Gerontology (SSWG) diploma program has been making life easier for seniors isolating at home or living in long-term care facilities during the pandemic while advocating for long-term changes in how we care for the elderly.

A group of Seneca students, recent graduates and professors working behind the scenes are hoping to shed new light on the long-term care crisis that has come under the spotlight because of COVID-19 outbreaks in institutions.

“It took thousands of seniors dying before the military came in,” said Caroline Grammer of the SSWG program about the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces to several long-term care facilities. “Even then, it’s yesterday’s news.”

Ms. Grammer teaches in the School of Community Services and the School of Health Sciences. She has been working closely with the SSWG team in three separate areas: research, response and advocacy.

“We have hundreds of students and grads working on the front lines, but some can’t risk it because it’s too dangerous,” she said. “It was a matter of bringing everyone together.”

Elaine Beemer graduated from SSWG in April and immediately started compiling data about COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care homes. She later showed her research to Ms. Grammer, who worked with her to broaden the research to find out who owned and managed the homes.

The research blossomed and Ms. Beemer fed her data to fellow SSWG graduate Tova Houpt, who along with others questioned provincial legislation that could lead to more privatization of long-term care.

Ms. Houpt and SSWG graduate Siying Cai recently spoke before a standing committee at Queen’s Park about their concerns.

“It was very eye-opening,” Ms. Houpt said. “It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening, but Elaine’s research fuelled what we were trying to get to and that’s fixing the long-term care crisis situation. Once you set foot in one of those homes, it’s not hiding in the closet. It’s in plain sight. It reeks of personal neglect and understaffing. It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to see that.”

“To suddenly be not busy after a whole lot of busy, it’s kind of a smack in the face. No way, I’m not sitting here and doing nothing. I’m broken-hearted. Some people I’ve taken care of are dying.” — Tova Houpt

Alison Drenikow is a final-year SSWG student working on the SSWG Response Team with Ms. Beemer. Working independently of the research and advocacy efforts, the response team has been taking phone calls from older adults and sending cards and dropping off therapy dolls for those without family or friends.

As well, donations are being collected for tablets, CD players and fidget boards for seniors to enhance their ability to communicate with loved ones, provide entertainment and assist those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“For me, it was, ‘What can we do now?’” Ms. Beemer said. “I wanted to make a difference right away.”

A former personal support worker, Ms. Drenikow has witnessed first-hand systemic problems that exist in some of the long-term care homes.

“Social connection is a big issue for seniors in our community,” she said. “Some of them are not allowed to leave their rooms. It’s severe and nobody’s talking about the people who have dementia and who don’t understand what’s going on, and the struggles the staff might have because of that.”

Ms. Drenikow, Ms. Houpt and Ms. Beemer are all mature students who say they have benefited from their professors who have extensive experience in the field and have prepared them well for the real world.

“We took the fast-track program and when everything got ripped away by the pandemic, it’s hard to just sit by and feel useless when we’ve been pounding the pavement for months,” said Ms. Houpt, who feels motivated to be part of the change. 

Contact the SSWG Response Team

289.670.0925 sswgresponse@gmail.com

“To suddenly be not busy after a whole lot of busy, it’s kind of a smack in the face. No way, I’m not sitting here and doing nothing. I’m broken-hearted. Some people I’ve taken care of are dying.”

Ms. Grammer says mature students account for 60 per cent of the SSWG program’s annual intake.

“This is not a sexy field,” she said. “It’s not glamorous. It’s hard and it’s ugly. You have to love seniors. It’s not just ‘I love my grandpa.’ You have to be passionate to be in this program and be prepared to use your supports to care for yourself. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s a calling.”