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Keeping VMCH disability group home residents connected during COVID

Life in isolation is difficult for all of us. Being physically separated from the people we love is heartbreaking. We hear a lot about older people in aged care and how they’re coping, but how are people in other support services faring? Member organisation VMCH provides 14 Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) homes across Melbourne for adults with disabilities who can live independently, with some support. 

SDA, or group home, residents are used to getting out and about in the community doing activities they love, enjoying visits from friends and family, and working at their various places of employment. But with much of that now on hold, VMCH support teams are thinking outside the square and making an extra effort to keep residents feeling safe, comfortable and connected. 

The use of PPE including face masks and shields is vital but it can be confronting, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities. Staff have created video clips explaining why masks are being used to allay any fears, educating residents in fun ways about hand hygiene and social distancing, and making an effort to turn off the news when the doom and gloom of COVID-19 causes stress. 

One of the biggest efforts has been keeping life fun in lockdown. Birthday celebrations and other milestones have become even bigger affairs with festive treats, decorations and families invited to join via Skype. In-house discos, restaurants and bowls sessions have kept everyone entertained, and Netflix has been installed to give residents more viewing options. Staff and volunteers from other VMCH sites have also made craft packs for residents to get creative. 

When Cheltenham SDA team leader Heidi noticed residents were becoming anxious about rising COVID-19 cases, she decided to arrange a dance-off to ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ on video sharing app TikTok – which lifted everyone’s spirits. 

Cooking has also become a popular activity in VMCH's group homes. Charmaine from Cheltenham wasn’t a cooking fan due to a fear of touching hot things; but thanks to the reassuring nature of support worker Marjan, she gained confidence and has been whipping up dishes for her housemates, as has her friend Rudy.

Baden, William, Bobby and Aaron from our Endeavour Hills SDA have also been busy in the kitchen; creating vegetable puffs from scratch to enjoy as part of their Monday Fun-Day lunch. The guys also had fun crafting; colouring in some signs to highlight the importance of hand hygiene, especially while in the kitchen. 

Innovation is also at an all-time high. Like many people stuck in “iso”, Cheltenham resident Val loves to play card and board games. However cerebral palsy and a movement disorder make it virtually impossible for her to pick up cards or small pieces. So VMCH Occupational Therapist Taryn created a magnetic bracelet to help her play. 

In the midst of restrictions, five residents moved from their Highett group home to a new SDA in Carrum on July 6. The $2.4 million development was designed under new SDA standards and residents have been busy making it feel like home; purchasing furniture and choosing colours to paint their rooms.

While families are obviously struggling with not seeing their loved ones as much as they’d like in person, they are also appreciative of VMCH's team’s efforts to keep them connected and their loved ones safe. 

Parents Ruth and Bart, whose son David lives at VMCH's Carrum group home said: “(Staff) manage to keep David smiling, laughing and happy. Our children are so fortunate to be where they are at this time of confusion and uncertainty.” 

VMCH is committed to providing quality and person-centred SDA houses throughout Melbourne. This commitment stems from VMCH’s Catholic mission and identity, particularly the importance of creating genuine and authentic spaces and places of belonging and hospitality for all people. 

We all love a good emoji. Billie Kempton, aged 80, is discovering the joys of the expressive icons (the masked face is her recent favourite) thanks to a new program helping to keep older carers connected.

“I’m like a kid in a candy shop with these emoji’s,” Billie said. Play aside, the use of a new iPad and online training has been a lifeline for Billie and her husband Laurie, also 80, who has Lewy Body Dementia. 

Billie has been supported by VMCH’s Carer Support Program as Laurie’s full-time carer for four years. She is one of 10 older people who care for a child or a spouse with a disability participating in the program, jointly-run by VMCH and YourLink – an organisation focussed on the digital inclusion of Australian seniors. 

“This program is the most wonderful thing,” Billie says. “You feel a bit left out these days… I don’t understand a lot of the modern things that are going on and I think this is going to open up so many different avenues for us. It’s an incredible program and I’m so grateful, I can’t tell you.”

Weekly training sessions with YourLink tech gurus have helped Billie to connect with family interstate via FaceTime and catch up with fellow carers supported by VMCH via Zoom.

For Laurie, communication is vital. “The first time we were locked down he was cut off from everything and he really aged dreadfully” Billie said.  “But he’s been joining in the iPad training sessions and it really inspires him. He actually picked the iPad and was having a go himself, playing some dementia games, which is a huge step for him.” 

VMCH CEO Sonya Smart said keeping the organisation’s clients and residents connected through the COVID-19 pandemic was vital to their mental wellbeing.

“We’re obviously working very hard to keep the people we support physically safe from the virus, but we’ve also had to adapt and become innovative in various ways to keep people engaged and connected. We appreciate the support from our donors and supporters, such as this Be Connected grant, to help us in our mission.”  

For Billie, the timing of the program couldn’t be better.

“People reaching out to each other at this time is a really important thing to do and if there’s anyone out there who’s caring and needs support, I would urge you to contact VMCH.” 

This program was made possible thanks to a $5,000 Be Connected grant from the Federal Government, aimed to help older Australians stay digitally connected.  

If you need carer support, please call VMCH on 1300 698 624. 

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