GETTING OUT THERE!

by Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Community Worker

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The Dara community inclusion programme

The need to belong to a community is universal, regardless of ability or disability, and access to an independent social life within that community is vital. Friendships, fun and social interaction are all parts of a rich and rewarding life.

Last year, Dara Residential Services launched a new community inclusion initiative in North Kildare, providing one-to-one support to adults with an intellectual disability who are experiencing social isolation. As a community worker with this programme, my role means that I try to understand why a person has become isolated and I support them by offering practical solutions, exploring new (or former) social interests and being present with the participant to help them overcome challenges.

The causes of isolation are often varied. For some people, changes in living arrangements or the loss of a job can result in a loss of social confidence. For others, a family bereavement can impact negatively. In some instances, bullying or other negative experiences in the past can have long-term repercussions. In all these situations, a helping hand and a positive, practical attitude can empower a person to become involved in their local community again.

The first person referred to the Dara Community Inclusion Programme was Peter* who lives alone in sheltered housing in Maynooth. Since his mother’s death, his social life had changed drastically and his family had become concerned. Peter had stopped eating out regularly and because he doesn’t cook at home, his health was deteriorating. His mood was low and he had lost interest in life. He was spending his free time watching telly or sleeping. When I first met him, Peter was unable to name anyone with whom he enjoyed a regular chat. Whole days passed without him having any contact with others.

While Peter agreed to meet with me weekly, he did not express any enthusiasm for going to new places or meeting new people. He appeared shy and indifferent and wanted to meet in the same dark pub where, for various reasons, he seemed to be left alone. For several weeks, our conversations were stilted. Peter was stuck in a rut. A combination of events— including bereavement and illness—had led him to lose his confidence and sense of his social self.

Over time I got to know the real Peter and discovered that actually he has a great sense of humour. He is interested in music, nature and animals and has travelled abroad. Although he was reluctant to impart them, he seemed to have a wealth of stories!

One day, out of the blue, Peter suggested somewhere new for lunch. It was the first spontaneous suggestion that I had ever heard him make! Since that time, Peter’s social confidence has grown steadily. Next, he lined up several new local places where he would like to eat. Gradually, he began to broaden his horizons and he became less shy when people in the community recognised him.

Peter had the support and encouragement to plan travel arrangements, find out opening times, order and pay for the food and interact with the people around him. On one outing, someone at a nearby table made Peter feel uncomfortable by making negative comments about his disability. I was there to help Peter respond to this situation and we later discussed ways in which he could deal with similar situations.

Most significantly, Peter invited a neighbour to join us for our weekly lunches and out of that arrangement, an independent friendship is now developing. In the near future, I envisage that Peter and his new friend will begin planning social activities together without my input.

While the Dara Community Support Programme offers interim support to individuals like Peter, it also achieves long-term benefits for those around him by building more inclusive and enriched social experiences for everyone.

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