Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Friends together

stalDoreen and Maggie are best friends and have just moved into their first home together at the ages of 80 and 77 respectively. This huge step has made a massive difference in their lives and they are now planning to put their stamp on their new place. Sinead McHugh-Hicks shares their story.

Doreen and Maggie, who have learning disabilities and complex physical needs, have been lifelong friends, having first met when they were placed in a large institution in Sheffield together in the late 1930s. But after more than 70 years spent in various institutions and residential homes, they are now finally in a home of their own.

he pair instantly hit it off when they met – providing a friendly, reassuring face for each other through some very tough times. Maggie and Doreen were in the same room, which was shared by about 13 people. Maggie would often be pulled around in a cot. There was little opportunity for them to leave the building and people with fewer physical disabilities would often help to support others because staff numbers were so low.

Doreen became malnourished while at the institution and contracted German measles and rickets. But the fact that she had Maggie as her companion helped her. They lived in the institution for more than 40 years – through the Second World War and beyond. When the institution closed in the 1980s, it was imperative the firm friends remained together and so they were transferred to a hospital.

However, for the first time in many years, they were in different rooms and placed on separate wards for a period of time. This affected them both tremendously in a negative way. Such communal living, in a more clinical setting, meant they were living in shared rooms with low staff ratios again. There were few opportunities to leave the hospital, little stimulation and nothing to do.

Before long, the pair were put forward for a transfer; this time to a smaller institution. While this was again communal living, the move saw the friends sharing the same room – something that cheered them up.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the pair moved to a service that enabled them to have their own bedrooms. Moving into a six-bedroomed residential home, with four other people and more staff, was the beginning of their journey to more independent living. It certainly was the first chance they had to make their own choices and to start going out into the community.

The move did not come without its difficulties, though. After many years of living in large, shared bedrooms, Doreen and Maggie were faced with sleeping in a room by themselves. One of the strangest things was getting used to the dark – their previous rooms always had the lights left on through the night. At first Doreen hated sleeping in her own space and would scream when the lights were turned off. However, staff worked closely with her and supported her through this and before long it became ‘the norm’.

Maggie took to her room very well; almost too well. She went through spells of just wanting to stay in her own room, refusing to leave it because she had craved her own space for so many years.But, crucially, this was her choice and so it was important for staff to support her the way she wanted.

Person-centred planning

Service provider Dimensions began to support the women about 10 years ago, when the organisation started running the service they lived in. This is when person-centred planning was introduced to their support plans and the pair began to really see a positive difference in their lives. For the first time they were involved in the recruitment process, choosing staff to support them who matched their own interests and needs.

Diane Round, locality manager for Doreen and Maggie’s service, has known them since Dimensions started supporting them. “Things became so different for them both, in such a positive way,” she explains. “The person-centred tools meant that they had control of how they were supported and to start being part of their community.

“We took the time to really get to know them both and see their very bubbly personalities. In the past, they had been dismissed because they do not verbally communicate; nobody had taken the time previously to communicate with them properly. We quickly learnt all about their needs, wants and desires – which included the fact that they wanted to have their own house.”

Soon after Dimensions began supporting the friends in this way, their infectious personalities shone through – they began to really be part of the community; one that that they had been excluded from for most of their lives. Maggie loves anything ‘posh’ and has been supported to visit Claridges in London several times where she enjoys being called ‘Madame Maggie’. Her bedroom is filled with ornate furniture and pretty jewellery. She chose to furnish her room with designer items and enjoys going to spas.

Doreen meanwhile is an adventurous person. She regularly visits Blackpool, goes to the cinema and has been on several holidays including cruises and to Disneyland Paris.

But their true friendship and love for one another shines through in everything – they have been through thick and thin together and the banter between them is incredible.

A home of their own

This year, their dream of moving into their own house came true after years of searching for a suitable property – and one that matched Maggie’s high standards. Dimensions worked closely with them to support their move.

“Walking into the house they have now moved into for the first time was so emotional,” Round says. “Doreen was so happy that she was jumping around in her wheelchair and Maggie had tears in her eyes because she was so pleased.

“The move for them was so exciting. It was amazing to be able to support Maggie and Doreen to achieve their dream. But it does feel a little bittersweet because for the majority of their lives they haven’t had the opportunity to really enjoy life to the full.”

Now the pair have settled in, they are loving life in their new home. Being able to decorate is an exciting aspect for them, having chosen the colour schemes they want. Adjustments have been made to the property, including installing a shower room and widening doors, and they have plenty of their own space as well as places they enjoy together.

They and their support team have completely immersed themselves in the community, which has led to a growth in both womens’ confidence levels. This includes both of them enjoying travelling on a tram for the first time, Maggie finding a local hairdresser that she likes and Doreen being supported to complete the Race for Life – a fundraising event that sees participants complete a five or 10 kilometre course for Cancer Research UK.

Their quality of life has improved so much in the past few years and they enjoy doing many activities together, like going to the theatre and to safari parks.They know each other inside out, and as all friends do, have the odd argument. But the most important thing is that after years of being left in institutions, where they were treated poorly and their opinions went unheard, they now have the life they deserve.

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