Love thy neighbours?

Case study   

Situation: Jim Dimmock, 81, and his wife Doris, 77, live in a low-rise private block of flats, where they have been together for 53 years. On a trip out with their bowls club their minibus was involved in a crash on the motorway. Jim’s legs were shattered and needed to be amputated. Doris fractured both her hips. 

Problem: Jim is in hospital where he expects to remain for some time. Doris has been discharged home after a short spell in intermediate care. She has difficulty getting around but can manage in short bursts. The hospital discharge team have provided aids and home care support to help Doris re-adjust to life at home. However, Doris is unable to get out of her flat – even to visit Jim – because, although there is a lift to her third floor flat, there are eight steps leading up to the entrance of the complex. Her care manager and occupational therapist agreed that a stairlift would solve her problem and Jim’s when he finally comes home. The fire officer agreed that the stairlift could be installed. However, the residents and the property agents are refusing permission – on the grounds that it might affect any future sale of the property. And as it is a common area of the building it does not have to be adapted by law. Doris is now a prisoner in her own home and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.   

The names of the service users have been changed.

Panel responses

Mick Ryan
Jim and Doris now face massive problems in returning to live together at home. It is not easy to see how the access problems can be resolved speedily – initially for Doris but for Jim, too, when he is ready for discharge.

The suggested stairlift raises the difficulty as to how the existing objections can be overturned. Also, how will Jim access the stairlift – probably from a wheelchair? This would need an early assessment.

There is also an issue around the funding of the adaptations given that it is in a common area and would be unlikely to attract a mandatory grant. The responsibility for the costs may well fall on the property agents of the other residents.

Both the agents and the other residents are against the idea but it would be important – with Jack and Doris’s permission – to challenge this. This would allow the other parties to know exactly what the consequences of agreeing would mean in terms of space taken up on the stairs and how it would look.

These objections may be masking discrimination on the part of the agents and residents. The social model of disability alerts us to the possibility that it may not be just Doris and Jim’s impairments that are acting as barriers to them living in their home. A meeting with the agents and the residents may be a constructive way to move this forward. Jim and Doris would need to be fully involved in this process. The couple have experienced a serious loss and need help to look at their options.

The involvement of advocacy would be important, which could include legal advice if Jim and Doris wanted to challenge more formally the objections to the adaptations by using provisions in human rights or disability legislation. A legal challenge would be an arduous road to pursue for the couple and they would need close support and good advice.

They should be given information about suitable alternative accommodation.

In the meantime it would be useful to look at Doris’s access needs, including the use of temporary adaptations or personal support to negotiate the stairs if this is safe and appropriate.

Sue Orchard
A referral to the intermediate care team would initiate a multi-disciplinary assessment of Doris’s abilities and provide physiotherapy and occupational therapy to try to improve her mobility and her ability to negotiate steps and stairs.

If this is successful, and Doris is able to negotiate the steps, a handrail may suffice on the steps providing this is acceptable to the tenants and the property agents. This, however, will not be of benefit to Jim when he returns home as he will probably be wheelchair bound and, ultimately, housebound without the stairlift on the steps leading up to the building.

Without the outdoor stairlift Jim and perhaps Doris could be housebound. Unless the other residents and the property agents relent and allow this to be installed I feel that the only way is for Jim and Doris to be rehoused into specially adapted housing or shared care housing developed with the elderly in mind.

There could be other problems arising should Jim and Doris have to move house at such a difficult time. There could be some degree of psychological trauma, as not only do they have to cope with the trauma of the accident and its devastating effect on both of them, but they also have to cope with the fact that in order to be together again they have to move out of the only home they have known for the past 53 years and in which they have raised their family.

If, however, they were able to stay in the flat and the subsequent adaptations carried out, there could be friction between them and the other residents. It may need to be pointed out to the residents that the adaptations will not only benefit Jim and Doris but, in the future, may benefit them as they become older.

Jim and Doris need to be together as soon as is possible to support each other and to come to terms with what has happened to them.

It may be that at some time in the future they decide they would be better off in other accommodation. But this is a decision that they can make together only when they have come to terms with the traumas of the past few months.

User view    

My first thought is that this unfortunate couple have the most uncaring, unimaginative and callous neighbours one can think of, writes Simon Heng. Sadly, this attitude is all too common, in that some people will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their “normal” locality is not degraded by people whose appearances, behaviour or needs disturb their illusion of perfection. What does this say about the values and morality of these individuals?  

Why should Jim and Doris have to move home in order to live together independently? Even in purely financial terms, their neighbours could be mistaken in their judgement. Jim and Doris’s fellow residents assume that the installation of the stairlift would adversely affect any future sales. In that there is a growing older population, and that they themselves might need this equipment when they are older, a stairlift may well enhance the value of the property, rather than diminish it.  

Certainly, the disability rights legislation concerning accessibility of services, facilities and buildings (soon to come into force) recognises that people with mobility problems have a right to access, as an integral part of social inclusion. There is a moral and economic case to be made when you consider the range of goods and services (including housing) on which disabled people are spending their money.  

Unfortunately, the disability rights legislation gives businesses, including property agents, far too many loopholes to excuse them from making things more accessible. Businesses are expected to make “reasonable” alterations and adjustments. Reasonable on whose terms? This has been left unclear. From what I understand, changes to buildings are not mandatory where the aesthetic or commercial value of the property is degraded, or residents’ quality of life adversely affected. Why?  

Jim and Doris are struggling hard to maintain their marriage together, and their joint independence. They know how precarious this has become for them because of their age and recently acquired disabilities. They also know it is still possible for them to lead independent lives in their own homes, with the appropriate care. 

I would like to see friends, relatives, even people paid to look after their interests – including social and health services – use the local media to campaign on their behalf. This just might help the other residents and the agents change their minds. 

Simon Heng is a disabled service user.

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