For most of us, the busy holiday season means time to entertain, party and enjoy some down time with friends and family. But for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it can be an intensely lonely time of the year when the social isolation they already experience only gets worse. Imagine if the only people you saw over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year were those paid to support you?
Friendships – all year round, not just in the holidays – as Open Future contributor and self-advocate Steve Dymond says, are crucial:
“It’s important for me to have friends because without friends you haven’t got anyone else you can rely on. It’s a good feeling to know you have some people there if you need them. It’s all about sharing experiences and sharing different things between each other.”
Open Future Learning strongly believes that the support staff person’s most important role is to help people to develop and maintain friendships. Community and friendships help us to live longer and happier lives, yet a recent review of research showed that 50% of people we support experience chronic loneliness.
As Open Future contributor David Pitonyak says in this film: “Nothing is more important than building meaningful and enduring relationships.”
Helping people to connect with others in their communities can seem like a daunting task. Open Future contributor Margaret Cushen says a community mapping exercise is one way to start building connections, just by writing down or photographing local places and activities that are – or could be – important to someone.
Leading thinker Beth Mount adds:
“We have to know people’s communities inside and out. We go into community as an explorer. What are the assets of this place, what do people need done here, what do people need help with, where are the opportunities to contribute? Talk to people, go explore! Find out what is here in this place and how that might be a world that someone with a disability can bring and offer something.”
To build and connect someone to new friendships most successfully means being the kind of support worker who recognizes they are not at the center of things. Instead, their role is clearly to help people take control of their own lives as active members of the community. “As a support worker,” says Open Future contributor Jack Pearpoint “it’s really important for you not to create dependency…a key role is to expand the network of support, build the circle of friends, and engage people in the community.”
It is worth bearing in mind the basic tasks of good support as developed by John O’Brien which are as pertinent now as they were almost 40 years ago when they were first developed. To help people become full citizens, John said, the first step is to discover their gifts and interests, create opportunities in community and help people share those gifts.
One story David Pitonyak tells is about once working with a young man called Roland. Roland was very aggressive, but he and David made a connection. Returning to his shift one evening in Vermont, he noticed Roland had left the home without anyone noticing. David eventually found Roland tramping through the snow walking towards his house. David recalls:
“I realized that an essential place of Roland’s suffering is that he didn’t have anybody in his life. We knew he experienced autism; we knew he was aggressive. But nobody had ever noticed that he had no people that he wanted to be with.”
David shares that he used his close and trusted relationship with Roland to help Roland to explore and experience things he had never tried before. David explains that it wasn’t long before Roland was making expansive lists detailing all the things he wanted to do and all the people he wanted to see in a day.
As David says, relationships are critical to our wellbeing. Having something to look forward to helps us cope better with our daily lives. “A lot of people who experience disability don’t have that much to look forward to…I really believe we should help people find more joy in their lives”.
And what better time to find that joy than this holiday season.
Learn more about the module ‘Building Friendships and Community’ and all of the Open Future Learning modules here.
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