About 150 people demonstrated outside the Sheraton Hotel in Red Deer in November to protest the Redford government’s decision to close Michener Centre. Several demonstrations have protested the decision in the last year.

Michener Centre: The Closing Doors — Part 1 — A War of Words

At the heart of the fight over Michener Centre are two words — “community” and “institution” — and the vastly divergent definitions ascribed to those words by the pro- and anti-Michener camps.

At the heart of the fight over Michener Centre are two words — “community” and “institution” — and the vastly divergent definitions ascribed to those words by the pro- and anti-Michener camps.

The process of closing large facilities for the mentally handicapped and moving residents into smaller group homes has been labelled a transition to “community living” for as long as it has been going on. For those guardians who say their loved ones are happy in Michener, though, Michener Centre and “community” are hardly oxymoronic.

While acknowledging the often unpleasant, sterile living conditions present throughout the first half of Michener’s history, the centre’s supporters say the real community for current residents is at Michener, not in some group home with people they may never have met before.

Moving Michener dwellers away from their friends and the staff members, who have often been with them for over a decade, or even two or three, would actually amount to taking them away from their community, supporters argue.

“Believe me, if my sister could be living right next door to me, that’s where she’d be living. My sister isn’t at Michener Centre because anyone wanted to lock her away, it’s just that people look around for options to deal with what they have to deal with. Michener Centre is the best option, always has been,” says Mark Keohane of his sister Susan, who has lived for 47 years at the centre, first in the old boxy buildings and now in the onsite group homes.

But no word draws the ire of Michener backers more than the dreaded “I” word. They say calling Michener an “institution” belies the fact that it has evolved with the philosophical shifts regarding care for the disabled.

“That was an institution,” says one current staff member of her first years at Michener in the 1980s, “This is a home.”

For those on the other end of the spectrum, though, the continued existence of a place like Michener Centre is evidence that those with disabilities are still occasionally treated as second-class citizens.

“Just as you probably don’t imagine yourself living there or that being a community and you know what community is, people with disabilities aren’t differently human and to contextualize (Michener) as a community is to somehow equate them with being differently human when you know full well what community means,” says Bruce Uditsky, CEO of the Alberta Association for Community Living.

In the past, though, Michener was specifically designed to be a largely self-sufficient community within the larger community of Red Deer.

Staff lived and were schooled on the grounds, cows roamed a large pasture just north of Ross Street, and there were fields, a storehouse and root cellars providing food for residents.

Power was generated on the site, and Michener had its own water tower and fire department. Residents were served at an onsite infirmary and dental clinic, were fed at a large cafeteria, and could practise woodworking or shoemaking through vocational programs. There was a radiology department and laboratory, and a dedicated hairgrooming service catered to residents in their homes.

The curling rink and recreational centre, both still in use today on the grounds, were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.

Harold Barnes, who lived at Michener from 1964 to 1971, remembers Michener having “probably the best floor hockey team in the land” (not to mention one of the roughest, he adds with a laugh). He was tasked with sorting potatoes that came from the Michener farm while living there; with Barnes and other high-functioning residents moving from Michener during the ’70s, though, the farm ceased operations.

Today, most of the services that once existed on the site are gone. The government announced in January that, in step with the downsizing, the onsite pharmacy will close this spring and the Michener nursing department is to be phased out. A government spokesperson said in February that no decisions have yet been made regarding Michener’s dental or rehabilitation services.

Michener’s population today is one-10th of what it was at its peak, and so there are a number of vacant buildings on the grounds, and much open space. Residents have been consolidated into seven residential buildings — four on the north site and three on the south — and 21 onsite group homes, 17 of them clustered together south of the main, iconic administration building.

As the population has declined over the last four decades, care has gradually become more personalized and residents have had more space in which to live. Sheila Stangier was hired as the centre’s first client advocate in 1989, and in the decade that followed, great strides were made in making the facility “more homey.”

When Stangier was hired, 1,100 Michener residents were spread across 14 large units and 22 group homes. Six years later, the population had been cut in half, but there were now “52 distinct home groupings” with between six and 23 residents in each. Smaller living environments were created, individual kitchens began to be incorporated into homes, rooms were painted and wallpapered according to resident wishes, and pictures were hung on the walls for the first time.

Stangier retired from the advocacy position in 1991, but two years later her husband took over as CEO of Michener. Over five years on the job, Gordon Stangier said his goal was to free staff he said had effectively been institutionalized by a labyrinthine bureaucracy that left 12 layers between the CEO and frontline staff.

“We simply created a philosophy that said your job is to make a home, and to allow staff to make some decisions about what went on in the place, what went on in the units — we changed that to ‘homes,’ simple words make a big difference — and we found out that things happened that weren’t directed. We found out that staff would come to work on weekends and help paint and decorate rooms,” recalls Gordon.

Jody Kvern’s bedroom today at Michener is decorated with photo collages and a prominent decoration that spells out ‘DIVA.’ Though the room is by no means large, in the past it was split down the middle by a wall so two people could fit in the space.

Floyd Kaye’s bedroom in a north site building, on the other hand, is large enough that four people once lived in it, without separating walls. The pale green paint still on the room’s walls gives it a sterile feel, but a hanging plant and family photos lend the room some flavour.

Most parents of disabled children today would not consider sending them off to a large institution because there are supports available to enable caring for them at home, supports that did not exist during the early days of Michener. Today’s residents — whose average age is 61 — were a product of that bygone era and thus for many of them what constitutes “home” and “family” is contrary to what it is for others, argues Lisa Kaye-Stanisky, the half-sister of Floyd, who has been at Michener since age five.

“I guarantee you Floyd doesn’t know me from Adam. I don’t have what I would call a relationship. He knows the people at Michener — some of them have been there 20, 30, 40 years. How are they going to replace that?” says Kaye-Stanisky.

Guardians like Kaye-Stanisky have been given every opportunity over the years to accept a move for their loved ones into group homes, but for the vast majority of remaining guardians, Michener has long been the clear residence of choice. Many of those guardians remain committed to fighting the closure order, but they express concern that even if their loved ones are able to stay, the specialized services that remain will gradually be whittled away until the point is reached where the quality care they so cherish at Michener will no longer be there.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

Coming Monday: Over the decades, Michener Centre grew to become a 66-building complex on 360 acres.

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