After spending nearly 30 years living in various institutions,Tony Gritton at last has a home, and a life, he can call his own. Lynne Powell reports.

Not many people leap out of bed at 7am to get ready for work with a song in their heart and a smile on their face, but Tony Gritton does. After spending most of his adult life in hospitals and institutions, the 47-year-old is doing something he never thought possible - living a supported independent life in a home he loves, and shining at a work placement. "It is like a dream come true," says Tony, who achieved it with the support of national charitable organisation Advance, which supports people with learning disabilities or mental health issues to live thelives they want in the community.

"I hated living in an institution and I was anxious to leave. I just wanted to live like everyone else, and now I'm working just like everyone else as well," explains Tony. 

Tony at work Zest for life
Tony has learning disabilities, schizophrenia and challenging behaviour. But he also now has a new zest for learning and life, after moving to 24-hour supported independence in a three-bedroom Advance home he shares with his friend.

Tony was 13 when he went into his first institution. He was 43 when he got his own bedroom "in my very own house" in Belvedere in Kent.

His social worker suggested Advance when Tony's last home was being closed down. Tony took part in the process that culminated in his new life. "I went to a lot of meetings, and chose my home," he says.

Tony is a tenant in the house, where he is supported by Advance staff, led by services manager Maria Green, who says the change in Tony since he moved in has been astonishing.

"When he came here, he refused to go out except to go shopping. Getting him out of bed in the morning was a struggle, and he could be quite aggressive. He was institutionalised, frustrated and bored," she explains.

"He is like a completely different person now. He enthusiastically embraces his independence, cooks, cleans, enjoys going out and loves his work. He has also learned to spot the signs when he's losing his temper. He hasn't had a single negative incident at work." 

In addition to practical support, such as food shopping, the support workers aim to push back the boundaries for their clients.

Green and her team found out what Tony enjoyed doing and then made it happen, working closely with his psychiatric team. In addition, Tony slowly learned about housekeeping and looking after himself. He hadn't cooked or used a vacuum cleaner before he moved to Belvedere, but now he cheerfully does both. 

"We make our own dinner and vacuum ourbedrooms. I enjoy cooking and making my room nice and clean," saysTony, who also makes his housemate a goodnight cup of Horlicksevery night. He enjoys photography, listening to his radio andtending his pets - three goldfish and two budgies called Susan andJoe, who live in his bedroom. "They sing along to the radio, but Icover them up at night," he says. 

Out and about

The next step was to encourage Tony to get out and about in his newcommunity. He first started helping in the office that Advancestaff use in the house and his confidence began to bloom fromthere. He agreed to go out for a cup of tea with Green, andrevealed that he'd like to eat out, which he now does frequently.Then he decided he wanted a job. Now he's part of a hard-workingteam, run by charity Re-Instate just up the road from Belvedere inErith, where more than 50 people with mental health problems aretrained and nurtured in a sheltered workshop that serves commercialclients. "It provides a friendly, supportive environment withinwhich confidence, work patterns and work attitudes can beengendered or regained," explains Tony's 'boss', Re-Instate'sgeneral manager John Boyd. "We tailor the work to their abilities,but it is a real working environment. Tony doesn't know what he'llbe doing from one day to the next, so it is a full-on, steeplearning curve," adds Boyd, whose workshop services range fromlabelling, packing and simple assembly to collating and makingcompost bins. Tony started attending one day a week eight monthsago, and has gradually built up the time he spends there; currentlyhe attends thrice weekly, from 9am to 4.30pm. "This is my firstreal job and I appreciate it a lot. I feel better about myselfbecause I'm just like everyone else," he says. "Sleeping was one ofmy favourite things and it used to be hard to get me up, but on mywork days I get myself up at 7am. I don't put my radio on becauseit would disturb everyone else. I feed my birds and then I getmyself ready for work. It takes me an hour. "Then I go on my own ina taxi to my work, which I enjoy. I have also made friends," addsTony, who notched up another first when he invited his work matesto a barbecue at his home this summer. Boyd says he has also seen asignificant change in Tony. "He was very shy and withdrawn at firstand now he's sociable and doing very well. He's a perfect exampleof why people should be given the chance to live independently.It's a very powerful thing to know you're doing what everybody elsedoes," he adds.

"His stamina is increasingtoo. He used to get tired, which is not surprising because he hasgone from doing nothing for years - from 0 to 180mph in threeseconds." 

Busy life

Advance Employment, whichsupports people from welfare to work, is monitoring Tony's progressclosely, and will gently support him towards open employment, whenhe's ready to move on. But for now, Tony is busy enough. "He hasgot a real taste for life," says Green. Indeed, she organised hisfirst holiday abroad at the start of the year, and he now has ataste for travel too. He has a long list of places he wants tovisit, but only by boat or car. "I am frightened of flying,although I haven't been in a plane, but I may do one day. I neverthought I'd live in a house and have a job, but I have," he says."My mum and dad would be very proud of me if they could see me nowand I am proud of what I've achieved. I have turned my life around."What would make my life even better? Nothing. Just living heremakes my life the best. I never ever want to leave this place."


About the author

Lynne Powell is writing on behalf of Advance Advance has three types of services: Advance Housing, including its own shared ownership programme; Advance Support, which is tailored to each client; and Advance Employment, which supports people from welfare to work.

This feature first appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Learning Disability Today magazine. For more features like this, as well as opinionated columnists, research and best practice from around the country,subscribe to the magazine here