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Working with the elderly an honour and privilege for long term care nurses
Abigail Kawadza is a Unit Coordinator at the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre.
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By Mike Daly
May/June 2019

In life - much as in literature - the most insightful and inspirational parts are often found in the final chapter.

That was one of the factors that drew Abigail Kawadza away from a position as an acute care nurse at Victoria General Hospital to her current position as a nurse and unit coordinator at The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre, a 200-bed personal care home in south Winnipeg.

"I believe that when you are working in long term care facilities, you have the honour of working with residents as they live out the final chapter of their lives. You have the opportunity to be there for them, to provide care, to support them, and to advocate for them when they can no longer advocate for themselves."

A native of Zimbabwe who was raised by her grandparents, Kawadza attained her nursing degree in Manitoba after she emigrated to the province in 2004. She spent her first six years nursing at Victoria General Hospital, but knew that geriatric long term care was where she wanted to be.

"I love taking care of people. That's just part of who I am. So I knew that in terms of nursing, I wanted to end up in geriatrics because I love working with the elderly."

It's a love that is rooted in her upbringing, Kawadza says.

"In Zimbabwe, we don't have nursing homes. Older people are celebrated as a source of a wealth of knowledge and experience and their families take great pride in caring for them. That's possible because there are large extended families who stay together. Here in Canada, financial necessity often dictates that the people who might otherwise be caring for their elderly loved ones are working, and so you have no one at home during the day to provide the level of care that is required."

Those cultural differences notwithstanding, Kawadza says that Canadians take equal pride in ensuring their parents' needs are being met,   and often require the kind of around-the-clock support found in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

"Families try," Kawadza says. "They want the best for their loved one, and will work with the supports available in the community. But there will come a point where their loved ones require 24-hour support."

This can be a very emotional and difficult time where circumstances can get complicated.

"Families struggle with the decision to place a loved one into long term care, and often feel a lot of guilt. They wonder if there is more they could have done," Kawadza says. "But if you are working and have a family of your own, it can be very difficult, so we are there to provide the necessary support. A lot of the families are very thankful because they have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their loved ones are being cared for. They are very appreciative of the level of care being provided."

That level of care is often extensive, Kawadza says.

"Our residents can have complex health issues. They can be frail and require increased assistance as they age. Sometimes, their health issues include a diagnosis such as dementia, where they reach a point in their life where they are no longer able to verbalize or express things like pain and they can sometimes be aggressive. So to be able to do your work effectively to assess the situation, and provide the support and care that they need  can be challenging."

It can also be rewarding.

"It's a very satisfying career choice," Kawadza says. "For residents, this is their home. Some have been here a number of years, so we have the privilege of getting to know them and develop relationships with them and their families. You spend so much time with them that they become, in a way, part of your family."

Sadly, as in all families, there inevitably comes a time when you have to say goodbye - a circumstance long term care nurses face with professionalism and grace.

"Death is just part of life," Kawadza says. "As nurses, we find solace in knowing that we were an important part of that final chapter. We were there to provide support to help ensure the resident was comfortable, that pain and other symptoms were well-managed. We grieve, of course, but we also remember their personalities, what they brought to the unit, and what we learned from them. That's often how we cope with it. I firmly believe that our fingerprints don't fade from the lives we touch."

Mike Daly is a communications specialist with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.