VANCOUVER -- Families and advocates alike are speaking up about an alarming shortage of health-care workers that typically help many British Columbians live at home with their loved ones despite serious disabilities.

Across the province, support workers like nurses and care aides have become increasingly hard to find for those choosing to live independently rather than at government-run support facilities.

“Caregivers are very hard to come by and it is a challenge right now and it’s something we’re seeing throughout the whole province,” said Paul Gauthier, executive director of the Individualized Funding Resource Centre (IFRC) Society. “There are not as many of them available because they’re not available to work – in many cases – in more than one facility.” 

With the provincial government ordering an end to employees working at multiple long-term care facilities in order to protect residents from COVID-19, Gauthier says some health-care agencies are following suit. That means some nurses and care aides who used to pick up a few shifts a week helping people in their homes can no longer do so. He says with funding for only a few hours of support per day, other workers are opting for the many full-time jobs available in the health-care system and public health during the pandemic; contact tracers, those training teachers and students, and quarantine officers are all typically trained nurses.

“I think government is working hard and I am impressed with the Ministry of Health in that they’re working with us and trying to be collaborative. They’re under lots of pressure, I’m sure,” said Gauthier. “But we cannot be forgotten. People with disabilities need to be in the forefront of the decisions being made in government and to be able to do that, that communication needs to continue and it needs to be valued.”

The shortage is hitting hard for families like Mary Jane Stenberg’s. Her husband, a welder, suffered a spinal cord injury after he fell off a scaffold in 1980. He was able to walk with braces and a cane for years, but a decade ago, a cyst grew around scar tissue and not only left him unable to walk, it resulted in a motor-neuron disease that’s left him unable to eat, speak, or even breathe on his own.

“He’s been receiving high-end, 24-hour care for the last few years and it’s only really until very recently this has become a huge issue and we’re unable to find staff,” she said, praising WorkSafeBC staffers who’ve been trying to get her more resources, but have themselves been unable to find support workers.

“I do think, for the most part, government’s done a good job with COVID-19, but you can’t let your most vulnerable people – especially when they’re workers who’ve been injured on the job who’ve really contributed to the economy in B.C. and who have done their best to work their way through horrific life-changing events – this can’t be left to happen,” Stenberg added.

The BC Nurses’ Union has been raising the alarm for years, saying more health-care workers are needed as PTSD and difficult working conditions have nurses leaving the profession early or simply retiring at a time when more of them are needed.

“It is a concern for me,” said BCNU president Christine Sorensen. “How do we provide the services that people who have serious medical needs in the community — how do we do that when we already have a nursing shortage in this province and elsewhere?”

Sorensen pointed out 40 per cent of B.C.’s nurses are expected to retire in the next decade.

“In the short-term, we are relying on copious amounts of overtime in this province and unfortunately what we’re seeing is nurses burning out from that,” she said.

The short-term solution nurses are looking for is more support workers to handle meals, medications, and housekeeping, for example, freeing them up to do the kind of hands-on health care only trained and qualified workers can handle.

When CTV News asked the Ministry of Health to address issues around nursing and care aide shortages and whether it would prioritize or triage human resources to avoid leaving people with disabilities on their own, the ministry sent an email response.

“The province has invested approximately $46 million to train thousands of new health-care professionals and workers since 2017, adding to the annual funding of more than $125 million for health education programs in B.C.,” the statement reads, in part. “Government has also been investing in valuable training in every corner of the province so that students preparing for careers in health care, or health professionals upgrading their skills, are able to provide quality health care when and where it is needed.”

But Gauthier and Stenberg insist that help is needed now. They’re urging government to find the money for better wages and working conditions, or to clarify rules and safety protocols to free up workers from other homes or facilities.

“We can help, people should get in touch with us,” added Gauthier, urging those having problems finding help — and workers looking for work — to get in touch with his organization.

“I worry because it’s me (standing) between my husband either dying or going into a (care) home where he won’t receive the level of care he receives here at home,” Stenberg said. “I’m not young. I’m not 20. And it’s a lot of work and luckily I’m healthy, but that could change tomorrow.”