When the pandemic started in March of 2020, it brought with it a lot of uncertainty and changed the way we interacted with our health care system. One of the biggest impacts to patients was when hospitals restricted its visitors in an effort to help keep patients, staff, physicians and the community safe. Although technology helped loved ones stay connected and allowed for clinical staff to share important information, Oak Valley Health knew the importance of integrating families back into the patient’s care when it was safe to do so.

Fast forward to February 2022, with many advancements in science, learnings from COVID-19, loosening of restrictions and updates to the visitor policy, Oak Valley Health developed an Essential Caregiver Program to safely reintegrate loved ones in the patient’s care throughout their hospital journey.

Essential caregivers are chosen by the patient and are an integral part of the care team, providing support throughout the patient’s care journey. They are not a casual visitor, but come to the hospital to assist with the daily care requirements of the patient.

“I felt like we were part of the team, they involved us in discussions and made us feel heard when we shared our feedback,” says Megha Patel, an essential caregiver for her father at Oak Valley Health’s Reactivation Care Centre (RCC).

Megha’s dad was transferred to the RCC after being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Markham Stouffville Hospital. She shared that having a loved one in hospital during the pandemic was definitely a challenge not only for her dad but for her entire family. “Being at his bedside we could help advocate for him, provide emotional support and make him feel at ease,” says Megha.

Once he was transferred to the RCC, Megha and her family completed the registration process, which included vaccination records and online training modules. An area Megha and her family planned to focus on was helping with her dad’s physiotherapy and support him in regaining movement. “I was shown the exercises he needed to complete and the staff would let me record them so that I could have the video on my phone to share with my mom and brother who were also essential caregivers. They would practice the exercises at home and be prepared to help my dad when it was their turn to come in.”

Part of being an essential caregiver and providing support to a loved one can also include feeding – something that can be tricky when the patient is a picky eater and a vegetarian, like Megha’s dad. Although Oak Valley Health accommodates dietary restrictions and provides a variety of cultural food options, Megha was allowed to bring home-made Indian meals that were inline with her dad’s diet to help him feel more at home, and give him a sense of comfort.

Patients who are part of the Essential Caregiver Program have different needs and can be supported in various ways. In the case of Ranjeet Wallia, whose elderly mother was at Uxbridge Hospital, he and his family provided emotional support for their mother. She had knee replacement surgery at Markham Stouffville Hospital and was transferred to Uxbridge Hospital for physiotherapy and rehabilitation. “This program brought a lot of comfort to our mother and to our entire family after only being able to see her for an hour a day,” says Ranjeet. “It’s a win, win situation for all of us.”

Ranjeet, who was a previous Board Chair at Markham Stouffville Hospital, understands and appreciates the pressures that nursing and clinical staff face each day. “The pandemic has augmented the pressures of staff by a ten-fold,” says Ranjeet. “There are so many benefits to this program – families and loved ones play an active role in the healing and journey of a patient, having the ability to communicate in your language and help the patient express their cultural views and opinions, and for staff to have families participate in their care.”

Essential caregivers spend more one-on-one time with patients and can flag when there are changes in their mood, feeding, sleep patterns, going to the bathroom, etc., making the role of the essential caregiver a key part of the health care team.

“We launched the Essential Caregiver Program in early February and have seen the impact it has had on families in the areas where it’s being piloted,” says Sandi Lofgren, Patient Care Director, Uxbridge Hospital and Reactivation Care Centre. “We know the importance loved ones have in the rehabilitation of patients and with the success of this pilot, Oak Valley Health hopes to expand this program to different areas across the organization.”

Read more about the Essential Caregiver Program, and how you can enroll.