Red Deer Food Bank employee Amanda Allen was on hand at the food bank Monday to accept a donation from Michener Centre resident Larry Esslinger. Esslinger

Red Deer Food Bank employee Amanda Allen was on hand at the food bank Monday to accept a donation from Michener Centre resident Larry Esslinger. Esslinger

Michener Centre a place worth fighting for

Michener Centre resident Larry Esslinger is non-verbal but he has an infectious laugh.

Michener Centre resident Larry Esslinger is non-verbal but he has an infectious laugh.

His big sister, Diane Esslinger of Edmonton, said Larry throws his head back, with his mouth open wide, and out comes a deep belly laugh.

“He just laughs with his whole being, with complete abandon,” Esslinger said.

“He likes people and the staff have ways to get him to laugh — whispering in his ear or rubbing his back. He’ll start to laugh until he’s laughing hilariously, a full-body laugh that actually becomes contagious. Staff and everyone else is laughing along with him.”

Esslinger doesn’t ever want Larry to lose his motivation to laugh.

But in March, the province announced that buildings on the north and south sides of Michener will close and residents like Larry must leave their longtime home.

Of the 220 residents still living at Michener, the government plans to move 116 into community group and seniors’ homes while the rest remain in the group homes on the site.

So far, six residents have moved out of Michener. Transition planning is ongoing with guardians of Michener residents.

The target date for residents to leave is March 31, 2014, but the government authority looking after the transition says moves will only take place when suitable homes and service plans are in place.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre, Red Deer city council, and many more Central Albertans have been lobbying for the centre to stay open.

Larry, 52, lives at Tamarac House, located in a southside building at Michener, with seven other severely developmentally disabled men.

Larry was born with cerebral palsy and micro-cephalis.

He has profound cognitive impairment, is severely spastic in all four limbs, and has a seizure disorder that requires him to be fed by a tube.

To keep his muscles from getting stiff, he receives physiotherapy twice a week and Michener staff stretch and exercise his muscles the rest of the week.

Larry has lived at Michener Centre since he was two.

His sister said she wasn’t close to her brother until about 15 years ago when she got a call that he was in the hospital.

“I was under the impression that Larry was not capable of forming a relationship with me and that he didn’t know who I was. So I didn’t visit him very often at all because I believed he didn’t know me and couldn’t know me.”

But that changed after one of Michener Centre’s staff nurses who worked closely with Larry met Esslinger at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre and they waited together for an hour outside the intensive care ward to see him.

“I could see how worried she was about him. She told me different things about his life. What he liked. What he didn’t like. I saw someone who obviously loved him and had a relationship with him. I just watched her and listened to her in wonder.

“That hour we had together changed my life,” said Esslinger, pausing to regain her composure. “After that I was very hopeful that things weren’t as I thought they were, that we could get to know each other, Larry and I,” her voice still shaky with emotion.

When Larry recovered, she visited Michener where Larry’s staff, on his behalf, invited her into Larry’s home.

“What they did was interpret him for me so I could form a relationship with him, so that I could see him, so I could know him. They gave me a brother that in some ways I didn’t know I had,” said Esslinger, pausing again. “So Michener is not an institution any longer and yes I want him to stay there.”

Esslinger said her brother has a very good quality of life at Tamarac, where there is one staff member for every four residents.

“The people who Larry lives with, the other seven gentlemen, are all non-verbal. One of them can walk. Two others can propel their own wheelchairs, but none of the others can. They are completely dependent.”

Michener Centre has won eight Premier’s Awards of Excellence and has been awarded the highest level of accreditation under the Alberta Council of Disability Services audit.

Esslinger said Michener staff work hard to create a family atmosphere. Residents at Tamarac eat their freshly prepared meals together. Each resident has a little CD player in his room and staff know what music they like. Larry can’t tell staff what he wants to hear, but he will turn his head towards the music and smile. He currently enjoys the music of John Mayer.

“Larry can’t speak so he can’t tell us what he loves and doesn’t love. But he’s very, very expressive with his face.”

Christmas is always a special time of the year for many Michener residents — they don’t hold back their enthusiasm.

“They are really excited about Christmas. They don’t lose their childlike wonder for the season and their enjoyment of the season. It makes it fun for the staff and for them.”

For years a Christmas village, complete with an electric train, was set up at Tamarac House. Many Michener residents would visit Tamarac over Christmas season to press the oversized, easy-to-reach red button that sent the train chugging through the village.

This year, the village and train are missing and will remain packed away in boxes as some residents who contribute decorations to the village prepare to leave Michener.

But Tamarac still has a Christmas tree, turkey dinner will be on the table on Christmas Day and staff will help residents unwrap their gifts, if required.

Families of Michener residents and staff want the province to honour its commitment that no resident would be forced to leave Michener Centre and as the population declines, the north side would be closed and residents would be moved to buildings on the south side.

Two guardians of residents have launched legal challenges regarding the closure edict.

Though transition planning is ongoing, many families have stopped the discussion process with the transition team in anticipation of a judicial review of the closure edict that will be undertaken in March.

Esslinger said the average age of Michener residents is 61 and she is worried that moving older residents with complex needs puts them at greater risk.

“It would not reflect well on the Redford government for these residents to move out and then for tragedies to happen.

“(Larry) is a real gift in my life. He’s a very, very sweet man. His gift is joy.”