COVID-19: Diaries from Inside an Oshawa Retirement Residence

Third year Durham College journalism student, Shanelle Somers, speaking to an elderly resident at her workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is part one of an ongoing series by Durham College journalism student Shanelle Somers, detailing her ‘other’ job, working in an Oshawa retirement residence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of this year of advanced journalism program at Durham College I had planned to polish my skills as a reporter, get better at asking the right questions and hopefully land a dream field placement position, hopefully with CBC Toronto.

In addition to my studies, I spent the school year working at my part-time position at a local retirement home.

As the year progressed, I achieved all I set out to do. I travelled to Guatemala with DC and Students Offering Support, where I was able to get real world international reporting experience, learned how to create a group documentary, co-hosted a weekly one-hour radio show and even landed that dream field placement position at CBC Toronto.

But everything changed when global pandemic COVID-19 surged, a virus killing more than 180,000 and infecting currently 2,684,640 people around the world.

For many students like myself, field placements were cancelled or deferred. Non-essential workers were laid off or sent to work from home. Schools and daycares are closed, and the economy is facing a recession.

COVID-19 has disrupted my full-time student life and instead enlisted me as an essential worker on the frontlines of healthcare – at Chartwell Wynfield Retirement Residence in Oshawa – now working full-time.

I never imagined this would be the profession I would find myself working in as a young adult. In 2011 fresh out of high school I searched for employment and few doors opened. But one day I found luck at a retirement home in north Oshawa.

At age 18 I was put to work as a concierge doing administrative tasks. I liked it because I was making more than minimum wage. At the time minimum wage was $10.25 and I started at $11.00.

I remember my first day of training like it was yesterday. The staff all took turns introducing themselves and informing the crowd of new employees about their past work experience and expertise. When my turn came, all I had was “Hi, I’m Shanelle and this is my first job.”

I was applauded but had no idea what I was getting myself into. Today, now in the midst of still working within one of the region’s well-known retirement homes during the COVID-19 pandemic I think back to that moment. I feel the same emotion, willing to work but uncertain of what’s ahead or if I am even qualified enough for the task at hand.

That primary task now is keeping COVID-19 out of my workplace, a home to more than 100 elderly residents.

I don’t know when or who COVID-19 will prey on next. Will it be a staff member, will it be a resident, or will it be me?

Are we sanitizing enough? Are we screening enough? Is everything we are doing enough to save our elderly residents and keep the virus out? These are all questions I do not have the answers to despite my eight years of experience working in various departments.

We can’t see the virus and that is the scariest thing.

Although, COVID-19 has changed the direction of my field placement plans it has not changed the fact that I love storytelling.

So, instead of travelling to Toronto to do my field placement at CBC and then starting my journalism career, I will take you inside the walls of retirement living and the day-to-day stories of those affected by COVID-19 in a series called ‘Diaries from Inside an Oshawa Retirement Residence’.

This is part one. More to come.