How residential care can prepare disabled people for independence

An award-winning care home is offering learning disabled people a path to independence by training them in the life skills that they need to move on. Natalie Valios reports.

Catherine Cowans now lives independently thanks to the support she received at Sunnyside House

From the outside, Sunnyside House may look like any other small residential care home, but it bills itself as an “independence skills training academy”. Its success in preparing residents with moderate to substantial learning disabilities to live independently was recognised at this year’s Skills for Care Accolades, where it won the overall “winner of winners” category as well as the “most effective new approach to service delivery award“.

Managing director Andrew Azzopardi set up the 12-bed home in Aveley, Essex in September 2008, and the aim was always “to do something different”. “I didn’t want to provide the old-fashioned residential style service”, he says.

So, over the next couple of years he developed the My Life (Learning Independence ForEver) programme to provide residents with the skills they need for sustainable independent living, and also set up a “training flat” next door to the home to be used as the final step towards independence


Training for independence

Twenty-one-year-old Joshua Conway moved out of his parents’ home and into Sunnyside House a year ago. In that time, Conway, who has learning disabilities and ADHD, has completed five of the My Life modules: lifelong learning, stress management, healthy eating, dealing with conflict; and communication. He is proud of the certificates hanging in his bedroom that recognise these achievements.

He is currently working on the time management and travelling modules. “My goals for time management are learning how to put more important things first; spending more time going to new places; learning how to do things so I don’t get tired; spending time doing more positive things; and finding things that make me feel good.

“For the travelling I get to go to the local shops with my parents and go to a local theatre group on my own. It’s made me feel more confident being able to do things on my own. The staff don’t have to follow me everywhere I go now.”

He is looking forward to starting college in a few weeks to study English, Maths and ICT and for the future he would like “to become a comedian and make a lot of money!”


Learning life skills

My Life has 21 modules including personal hygiene, communication skills, dealing with conflict, assertiveness, money management, travel training, and job searching. My Life group sessions are held three days a week in the home’s training room and service users are assessed on their understanding and competency after completing each module before they can move on to the next one.

On average it takes about three years for a service user to complete the whole programme, including living in the training flat on their own for up to a year. The flat has a bedroom, a lounge and bathroom. A flood detector, extreme heat detector and lifeline are in place, and each user is assessed before moving into the flat to see if any other assistive technology is needed.

“Going straight into the community is a big jump from living in the home, so the flat is a halfway point,” says Azzopardi. “It gives them the feeling that they are living in the real world a bit more and it allows them to test out the things they have learnt so we can see whether there are any gaps to fill before they take the final step of moving into the community.”

Assessment and review

To decide when a service user is ready to move into the flat their key worker and manager assesses and reviews their independent living skills and My Life programme progression. Once it is felt they are ready, a placement review is held with the service user and funding local authority, and funding then decreases in line with the lower levels of one-to-one support the service user will need.

So far, two service users have completed the programme and are now living independently in the community. One service user is currently in the flat with his transition planned for January 2013, and another user is lined up to move in afterwards.

All placements at Sunnyside House are council funded – Thurrock Council funds the majority with the remainder coming from Essex, Barking & Dagenham, and Havering councils. But Azzopardi has found it difficult to spike the interest of some local authorities he has approached: “Everyone is focused on not placing people in residential care homes. We constantly say we may be registered as a care home but our services are much more about supported living and independent living, but when you go before a funding panel that can be difficult.

“We feel that with everything we have to offer, our educational environment, highly trained staff and the building that is all geared towards independence move-on is far more cost-effective than funding a cheaper placement for the next 15 years.”

How the My Life programme works

The My Life team at Sunnyside House consists of four tutors overseen by Jan Faulkner, the programme lead. The tutors come from support worker backgrounds and have the Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector  qualification.

They run three group sessions each week working on a module at a time; additionally, each key worker works on two or three modules with their service user on a one-to-one basis each week.

“Each week I go through everybody’s file and when someone has completed a module I assess the work and when they have passed they are given a certificate,” says Faulkner. “If there are areas of concern then we recap the work. There is no point in passing someone if they aren’t ready because then living independently will not be sustainable and it defeats the whole object.”

The two ways of working – with tutors and key workers – complement each other, says Faulkner. “The one-to-one time with the key worker is important but it is also vital that they can work within a group and learn team work.”

She feels the programme’s success lies in the way that staff make learning enjoyable. “If someone isn’t great in a classroom environment and prefers to go out for a coffee and cake, then we can adapt that into modules – for example, travel training and money management.

“We are delivering the skills that are necessary for sustainable independent life and we are seeing the results, which is fantastic.”

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