CALTC Health Human Resources Insight: The Unique Challenges of Staffing in Long-Term Care Homes

The pandemic placed a spotlight on the many challenges facing long-term care homes. These challenges predated the pandemic, but were exacerbated by the unique challenges posed by a new virus which was little understood at the time but disproportionately affected older Canadians. It’s been reported on extensively since the first wave of COVID-19 infections in Canada — there is a human resources crisis rippling throughout the health care system. In long-term care homes across the country, this problem is even more acute.   

Work in long-term care is incredibly rewarding, with a wide range of team members ranging from nurses and PSWs, to administrative, dietary and environmental support staff, recreation program managers, laundry staff, social workers, physiotherapist and occupational therapist, volunteers and family members. All contribute to support a residents care and quality of life. The relationships with residents creates a personal aspect that makes long-term care careers rewarding. As staffing shortages have grown, it has become more challenging for staff. Shortages are being fueled by competition across the health care sector, experiences from COVID-19, and retirements among the existing workforce.

This situation has caused the system-wide health human resources (HHR) crisis to hit long-term care particularly hard. As of the final quarter of 2022, there are over 38,000 vacant positions across Canada in long-term care homes, more than double the vacancies in 2019.

Governments of all stripes in every corner of the country have been trying to come up with solutions to the problem. As they propose new policies and programs that look at tackling some of the root causes, it is important that they have the necessary information to tackle the issues at hand. A crucial part of building that evidence-base is engaging the long-term care sector directly to understand what is needed, and investing in data development efforts to inform policy decisions.

Establishing improved workforce data, considering factors such as workforce age and expected retirement timelines, is crucial to laying a foundation for long-term workforce planning. This data can be used to inform immigration policies, college and university enrolment numbers, and workforce management planning by the long-term care sector itself.

As the Canadian population continues to age, understanding the needs of an aging population is essential. We know Canada’s senior population has been growing for decades. In 1997, there were 3.5 million Canadians 65-years and older, by 2017 there were 6.2 million in this same age range. By 2037, there are projected to be 10.4 million seniors. Based on this, it is reasonable to anticipate the demand for long term care will continue to grow.

We know that long-term care homes will need to be renewed and developed to add capacity, but its critical that we have sufficient staff. More strategic work is needed to lay a sustainable  groundwork to successfully recruit and retain staff in long-term care.

Over the next few weeks, CALTC will be looking at HHR challenges in long-term care and the policy solutions that should be explored. Through these series of insights, we hope to highlight the critical need for governments to come together and prioritize long-term care staffing needs.

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