PSW worker pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair in a long-term care home

Deciphering PSW Meaning: Understanding the Role in Depth

Personal support workers (PSWs) are healthcare providers who provide care and support to aging, disabled, injured, or ill patients/clients who need assistance with activities of daily living. If you’re considering a PSW career, it’s important to fully understand the meaning of PSW, what to expect as a PSW, and the crucial role you’ll play in people’s lives.

This guide provides insights into the meaning of PSW, from the history of the term to the evolution of the role.

Unveiling the Term and Meaning of PSW

According to an article in the Journal of Long-Term Care, the term “personal support worker” emerged in Ontario two decades before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada in 2020. However, caregiving and support roles filled by PSWs emerged as the nursing profession in Canada evolved in the 1990s.

Amid pressure to cut healthcare costs, employing highly educated and trained nurses for non-specialized daily tasks typically handled by PSWs, like feeding, hygiene, toileting, and grooming, became too costly.

During this same period, hospitals began limiting the length of stays, with patients being sent home or to continuing care facilities much sooner after surgeries or illnesses. PSWs provided the support these patients needed to transition safely.

The role of PSWs continually evolves to fill gaps in Canada’s healthcare system, especially for vulnerable populations. As the Canadian population continues to age, the reliance on PSWs and the significance of the roles they play will become even more apparent.

Exploring the Role of a Personal Support Worker

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) defines PSWs as workers who are paid to provide care, including personal care, activities of daily living, light household chores, instrumental activities of daily living, and other related or routine health services, such as changing non-sterile dressings or helping administer some medications.

The Ontario PSW Association lists the core responsibilities of PSWs as any combination of personal, mobility, and health-related patient care. It also includes emotional and social support, and additional care delegated by a registered health professional deemed safe for PSWs to perform and within provincial legislation.

However, the Health Professions Regulatory Advisory Council (HPRAC) of Ontario states that the roles and responsibilities of PSWs aren’t clearly defined or even agreed upon universally. This ambiguity primarily stems from the PSW role being unregulated, leading to confusion on what PSWs can and can’t do.

A PSW’s title and scope of work can vary across Canada and continually change. For example, you may be called a nurse aide or assistant, personal health care aide or assistant, home and community care worker, home health aide, or continuing care assistant, among many others.

Your responsibilities will vary depending on where you work and the type of patients you work with. Your title may vary by region or based on where you’re employed. Typical work settings where PSWs interact with patients include hospitals, retirement homes, long-term care facilities, and patient homes.

No matter your title, where you work, or the duties you perform, it’s crucial for you to exude empathy, compassion, and respect in your role to ensure each patient receives the care and dignity they deserve. 

The Evolution of the PSW Role

As a PSW, your role has continually evolved from the historical caregiving and support roles to the shift toward person-centred care in modern healthcare. The role of PSWs has also adapted in response to Canada’s changing demographics and healthcare needs. 

Canada’s population is growing and aging, with about 25% expected to be 65 or older by 2068. The continued rise of older Canadians means increased health issues that place further demands on the country’s healthcare system. 

A 2023 report by Statistics Canada indicated that nearly half of Canadians reported having a chronic disease, and almost 2.5 million Canadians had unmet healthcare needs. Between the country’s aging population and increasing prevalence of chronic health conditions, the need for home care services, such as those provided by PSWs, is rising. 

Skills and Qualities of an Effective PSW

You must possess practical caregiving skills and techniques to be an effective PSW. Assistance with activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, eating, and mobility, are core skills. However, soft skills like communication and active listening are also vital to conveying information clearly and understanding your patient’s preferences and needs.

Active listening also helps improve empathy, a crucial skill for caregivers. Understanding how the person in your care feels fosters trust and creates a more comforting and supportive caregiving environment.

Everyone’s situation is different. I have had patients who had a different visitor every day or so, but I have also had patients who never had a single visitor. You may be the only person that some patients spend one-on-one time with, so it’s important to be caring and compassionate.

A good rule of thumb is to treat every patient the way you would want someone to treat your parent or grandparent. Patience is another must-have skill. Without it, you may find it difficult to remain calm and tolerant when faced with unpredictable and challenging situations. We all hope for uneventful shifts, but you never know what’s going to happen.

Your patient may fall, refuse to eat, or not make it to the bathroom on time. I have cared for patients who threw food at me, fell trying to get out of bed on their own, and sat in the doorways of their rooms just to be able to talk to the people who walked past. There is never a dull moment when caring for other people in this way, and you have to have patience to cope with the challenges.

Challenges and Rewards of Being a PSW

Being a PSW is both physically and emotionally challenging. Turning patients to prevent bedsores or lifting patients to help them transition between a chair or bed to a wheelchair takes physical stamina. 

Dealing with the loss of a patient requires emotional resilience. It’s hard when a patient passes, but unfortunately, it is a part of the job. I like to remind myself that I did my best for them while they were in my care. Knowing that I had a part in keeping them comfortable in their final days gives me a little peace.

Despite the challenges, PSWs often build meaningful relationships with clients and their families that enrich their lives. Positively impacting your clients’ lives can be extremely fulfilling and foster enduring job satisfaction. Plus, it just makes you feel good.

I once cared for an older man who wouldn’t eat his breakfast until I arrived for my shift to help him. His daughter found me in the hall and thanked me for the time I spent with her father. Moments like that are a reminder of the critical role PSWs play.

Embrace a Rewarding PSW Career

From the emergence of the personal support worker term decades ago, through the evolving meaning of PSW and their roles in healthcare, these crucial healthcare providers are indispensable in Canada.

Filling healthcare gaps and supporting vulnerable populations in various settings, PSWs enhance the quality of life and independence of individuals across the country.

If you’ve dreamed of working in a field where you truly make a difference in people’s lives, consider a rewarding career in the PSW profession and help shape the future of healthcare in Canada.

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Jennifer Trimbee, RN
Jennifer Trimbee, RN

Jennifer Trimbee is a registered nurse with over 15 years of experience in various healthcare settings. She has cared for multiple patient populations, from neonates to seniors, and has worked in ICUs, transitional care facilities, and home care. In 2015, Jennifer combined her English degree and nursing expertise and started freelance writing.

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