THUNDER BAY - Talking about a life-threatening illness or end-of-life care is never an easy conversation to have, especially for those who may not even have someone to open up to in the first place.
Vulnerable members of the community, such as people living on the street without access to shelter, often turn to shelter support workers to help navigate these difficult challenges and now, courtesy of a new training program, staff at Shelter House Thunder Bay is learning the right tools to better assist homeless people living with a life-threatening illness or facing end-of-life decisions.
“We deal with a very diverse population and we deal with this every day,” said Michelle Morgan, operation supervisor at Shelter House Thunder Bay. “We hold 62 people in the Shelter House and there are probably a good half of them who are sick and require services.”
Hospice Northwest, in partnership with Saint Elizabeth Health, is providing a training course for support care workers on a palliative approach to care for the homeless population.
The course, entitled A Palliative Approach to Care Workers who Support People who are Homeless in Canada, is the first of its kind to be offered in the country and this week more than 30 Shelter House staff participated.
Shelly Wall, education and special projects coordinator with Hospice Northwest, said other organizations in the city, including Grace Place and the Salvation Army, are also setting up dates to participate in the training.
“It’s important for anyone in any city who has a palliative issue and is vulnerably housed,” Wall said. “Hospice Northwest is the first to begin the training. We are looking to assist more in the area and this is a jumping off point.”
According to Courtney Shaw, a senior researcher with Saint Elizabeth Health, the training is the result of an 18-month collaborative project with researchers across Canada.
“We recognized there is a need for better palliative care services for people who are homeless or structurally vulnerable,” she said. “The idea behind this curriculum was to bring the correct skills to social care workers to meet clients where they are.”
The training teaches a palliative approach to care, which addresses all the domains of need, including spiritual, physical, and psychological.
“First and foremost, we are looking at how to improve communication with health care professionals, supporting staff to recognize clinically relative signs and symptoms of common diseases that people who are homeless might present with, how to identify and access palliative care services that people might be eligible for, and some strategies for dealing with their own grief and bereavement when their client passes away.”
Morgan said assisting people who utilize Shelter House services with these difficult and challenging issues can be very stressful on the staff.
“It takes a toll on them as well because they are dealing with people who are sick all the time and they begin to be friends with them and have a connection with them so it is really hard for them when they lose someone,” she said.
People who are homeless or vulnerable may also be more reluctant when it comes to dealing with the health care system, which Morgan said staff also see on a daily basis.
“We have repeat people who have to use the services, so sometimes there are negative interactions, so we are trying to bridge that with the staff,” she said.
“While health care services might be available, they are not being accessed,” Shaw added. “The idea of bringing it back to the social care workers is to find people they already have a good relationship with and build on that relationship.”
And while people who utilize Shelter House will benefit from the new knowledge and skills of support staff they see every day when seeking help, the staff members themselves will no longer feel quite so helpless.
“We are trying to take away a little bit of that helpless feeling for the support staff, so they know a little bit more about what to say and how to deal with clients who are suffering,” Wall said. “We want to help them out and make them feel a little less out of control and a little less helpless.”