Family on 20

Gigi, the Program Manager at 20A, sits between Ariis and Todd. She’s holding her arms around theirs, releasing them only to gently stroke their hand as they reach out for her rewarding touch.

Gigi manages a house that is home to people with special needs. I first met Gigi and her household when I toured all the programs as part of my orientation last July. At the time, she gave me an open invitation to visit whenever I wanted.

This is what I’m doing on this sunny Thursday morning. I’m at the home on 20A Avenue in Surrey, having coffee and cake at the kitchen table surrounded by her team of care givers: Darshan Gosal, Barbara Vanderheide, Pam Gandham and Pamela Grier and the people they support: Ariis, Todd, Suzanne and Amy. Nichol is away today; she participates in programs at The Treehouse from Monday to Friday.

The residents give me the permission to tour their bedrooms. Each room is unique and reflects the personality, tastes, and preferences of its mate. The entire house is squeaky clean, bright, and cheerfully decorated. The kitchen is big and inviting; it’s a place I want to hang out.

Back around the kitchen table, we’re having a great visit, the ten of us; each conversing in our own style. We talk about the favorite activities of the people who reside in the household and the subtle ways in which they communicate. We also talk about the staff, what it takes to support the individuals and the fun they have together.

As I look her way, Ariis gives me with a big smile and lets me know that she’s happy to have me in her home. She’s outgoing and laughs easily. She’s well dressed with a touch of make-up and polish on her nails. She beams at the compliment when I tell her how pretty she is. The staff recount found memories of participating in her favourite activities. She enjoys swimming, shopping, sailing, watching movies and being around people. Ariis looks at them with a big grin and concurs that they are on track.

Todd is quietly clutching his Scooby Doo friend. He looks sparkling in his outfit that he selected this morning. He’s wearing matching orange coloured t-shirt and socks and a pair of kakis. Todd has a vast collection of anything Scooby Doo that he displays on his dresser. Pam tells me that he also enjoys bowling and that his face lights up when he takes down the pins with his ball. Todd is able to bowl because he is accommodated with a special lane extension that reaches to his lap.

Ariis and Todd are good friends. Every morning after they make their way to the kitchen, Ariis gives Todd a big hug by extending her arm to touch him. They both like watching television together in their spare time.

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Suzanne is more introverted and prefers to be alone. That being said, she likes to hold hands. I notice that she’s assumed the position with Barbara who’s sitting next to her. Suzanne is blind and the hand contact connects her with others. Suzie, as members of the staff affectionately call her, is 65 years old. I remark that she looks 20 years younger and ask her, “What’s your secret, you look so young?” She perks up and opens her eyes proudly toward me. Perhaps, it’s the dance that she enjoys to attend at Semiahmoo House Society.

Amy wasn’t there when I showed up; she arrived a little later. Amy doesn’t live in the house, but she comes to attend the one-to-one day program with Pamela three times a week and to visit her friend, Ariis. Her trade mark is the one thick braid of dark brown hair that she proudly wears close to the left side of her face.

Ariis, Suzie, Todd and Amy have multiple disabilities and many health issues. They do not use verbal language and they access mobility in wheelchairs. Except for Suzie, they take their nutrition through a tube.

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I ask: “What personal qualities are important for someone working in the home?” Barbara turns to me and thoughtfully says: “It takes sensitivity and patience. And it’s really important to pay attention to the subtle communication cues.”

The staff members are able to communicate with the residents because they know them so well. In fact, when Todd first arrived at the house 7 months ago, he was totally non-communicative. With the persistence of the staff in engaging him, he now communicates without using words.

Gigi and her team continually learn the preferences of each person for whom they care. They respect their individuality and give them choices. For example, the individuals choose what they wear on any given day and they get to participate in the activities they like. I take note at how amazingly caring Gigi and her team are.

Pam credits team work for the quality of care they provide. The team members are obviously close. They really appreciate each other and, to preserve that, they deal with their interpersonal difficulties quickly. They evidence their affection and respect for Gigi by saying: “Even though she’s the manager, Gigi works very hard alongside of us. She’s a great leader”. Darshan surprises me a little when she adds: “We love our jobs. We can’t wait to get to work. It’s like home.”

The house also provides palliative care, as residents reach the end of their lives. Because of that and the complexities of the health issues in the household, staff members have had to acquire an array of technical and interpersonal skills. “We’re very proud of what we know and what we do”, Pam says. It’s a big responsibility to be a care giver. “We have to administer medicine carefully, maintain a daily routine and keep up with many medical appointments in order to maximize the health of the individuals”, mentions Gigi.

I’m looking at the clock and I’ve been here for an hour already. It’s time for me to get back to work and let these folks go about their day. As we close our visit and walk together toward my car, Gigi confesses: “We don’t feel sorry for them. That’s their lives. We give them their lives and we love them.” Conversely, she says: “We suffer a lot when someone passes away. But, we remain strong to support the living.”
“Come back anytime, Louise.”

“I will for sure, Gigi, bye for now.”

By Louise Tremblay, The Semiahmoo Foundation

Semiahmoo House Society, a non-profit organization located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to provide quality services and supports to people with disabilities and their families in the community. 

The Semiahmoo Foundation, located in Surrey/White Rock, exists to fund, support and enhance the programs and services delivered by Semiahmoo House Society.

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