Over the last few decades, the international emphasis on caring for the disabled has moved in a new direction. Instead of forcing people to live in impersonal institutions, many are now offered the option of assisted living. This takes the form of specially adapted homes with caregivers who supervise and assist the residents 24/7. The idea is to provide a safe comfortable environment that feels like a family home. This is the case in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I live, and I recently had the opportunity to talk to some people who are involved in assisting with this program. I hope their stories will inspire you to do something in your area.
Independence for the Disabled
Disabled people look for assisted living for a number of reasons. Some desire a measure of independence. Others can no longer rely on aged parents for care or family members may ask them to move out. It can be a positive move as the residents in the homes tend to bond together and form their own family unit.
Some of the homes in the Christchurch area can house six residents. They are specially adapted with big bathrooms, rails and wheelchair ramps and each person has their own bedroom, individually decorated. Just as in a normal family, there is a diverse mix of age, ability and health issues. From this chaos, friendships form and routines develop making the home feel like home.
The Enrich Chaplaincy
This is a Christchurch initiative that provides spiritual care to the residents in these homes. Their vision is to encourage respect, understanding, belonging to community, contact with family and friends and connection with God in a way that is relevant and meaningful. As part of this, they have involved volunteers from several churches in the area.
These volunteers make themselves available to visit and simply be a friend. I spoke to Gavin Kingsley and Lynette Nelson about their involvement. Gavin's motivation was a disabled uncle who lived in Blenheim, New Zealand. "I didn't get to see him very often so thought I would like to do something locally." He now takes an intellectually disabled friend to church every week. Lynette volunteered because the idea appealed to her and was "something she could do". She says she enjoys visiting her friends and they talk about what they've been doing, what's for dinner that night and often show photos around. Volunteers visit the home on any basis they find convenient, either individually or in pairs, usually phoning ahead to co-ordinate with the staff. During the visit, team members may play games, share magazines and photos or just talk to the residents. A visit from pets is always well received too.
Social Interaction Welcomed
For some volunteers, it was a new experience to interact with people with intellectual disabilities and they were understandably apprehensive. However, actual visits have shown the residents to be friendly and welcoming and the volunteers soon relaxed and enjoyed what they were doing.
Birthdays are special occasions and the residents of the homes look forward to them with great anticipation. "We remember them and visit with cards and gifts." says Lynette. The volunteers also ensure that these folk are invited to participate in church and community activities. These have included fish and chip nights, sing-alongs and barbecues. Gavin gave the following report back on a recent barbecue. "Entertainment was provided in the form of singing, with a variety of songs being performed. Face painting was available throughout the event, and many people took advantage of this to decorate both cheeks, both arms and both legs. Finally Polly the Performing Pooch came and gave a performance, although the dog was sometimes distracted by the many delicious barbecue smells in the vicinity." Two balls are planned for late 2009 and these are formal events where the residents dress up and those who are able to, dance.
Alpha Course for the Intellectually Disabled
The world's first Alpha course for people with intellectual disabilities was run in Christchurch with a variety of volunteers from various churches and denominations. The report back on the course was extremely positive: "Each
evening would start by singing a song of greeting and then Jim (Jesus In Me), a cheeky puppet, would review last week's session with Sharon, his multi-talented puppeteer." Other props included the use of drama and a DVD Bible. After the evening's topic was covered, the participants would break into groups with the volunteers to reinforce the learning and create some relevant artwork. Then the groups would return for some worship songs and finally a lavish supper. "It was a joy to work with the participants who were always very direct and unabashed. They would give themselves fully to whatever activity was required, whether coloring in, singing or eating." In the words of one volunteer, "It is easy to give when they are giving so much back in return."
The disabled can become an isolated sector of society – a group longing for friendship and recognition. People who volunteer to visit them, often end up making genuine friendships and seeing a new side to disabled. Even if you cannot do it on an ongoing basis, why not set aside a day every few months to volunteer at a home near you. The rewards will far outweigh the effort and time expended .