Linda McKay

Michener Centre: The Closing Doors — Part 3 — Behind the uniform

Linda McKay’s student nursing uniform is preserved behind glass in the Michener Centre display in Red Deer Museum’s ‘Remarkable Red Deer’ exhibit.

Linda McKay’s student nursing uniform is preserved behind glass in the Michener Centre display in Red Deer Museum’s ‘Remarkable Red Deer’ exhibit.

As a student in the Mental Deficiency Nursing training program at Michener in 1973, McKay clearly remembered being chastised for leaving her unit wearing her white cap.

“I wasn’t supposed to be out in public with that cap on, even if I was just going six blocks home,” said McKay, 62.

Formality was the standard of the day for much of Michener’s early history that stretches back to 1923.

Through the years, Michener has had its critics. But McKay said Michener Centre did what society wanted, and what was acceptable, at the time.

“For us to go back now and judge, I find it really difficult sometimes . . . . Not that I don’t think that we can learn. Maybe everything that went on was not great, but they did what they could under the circumstances with the resources they had and what society wanted done,” said McKay, who was at Michener for 27 years working on a variety of units and group homes.

McKay said the stringent regime for staff and residents eventually, did relax and education for developmentally disabled became more individualized to suit Michener residents.

“People tend to think that Michener was a stagnant place, but it was dynamic, it was always changing. We were always looking to what was going on in the world in terms of treatment.”

For McKay and others, some residents became like family, and the feeling was mutual.

Like many staff, McKay had birthday parties at her own home for residents.

Once when she brought a young resident home for Christmas, she got a call to bring the boy back because his mother had arrived. After receiving his mother’s gifts, the boy eagerly said goodbye in order to return to McKay’s house.

“At one point I think families were somewhat intimidated. You wouldn’t socialize within the institution. That has changed considerably. Once we got group homes, we were having family picnics and all kinds of different things.”

McKay is still in contact with the resident with whom she shared her holidays, as well as his mother.

Working at Michener was a family occupation for Deb Simmons, 53, who started as an institutional aide at Michener in 1985. Her husband, mother, sister, brother-in-law and sister-in-law have all worked at Michener.

Simmons said staff had to be totally supportive like a parent, but prepared for anything.

One day, a resident came running at her saying, ‘‘I’m going to kill ya, I’m going to kill ya,” but instead of being attacked, Simmons received a big bear hug.

Staff also had to deal with problem behaviours.

“Everyone was different. No two techniques were the same. They needed a space to go and just be by themselves a majority of time — as long as they were safe. And if they weren’t safe, you had to be near. I’ve seen people get hurt because they’ve been near, but you had to be near. You couldn’t leave.”

Staff knew if someone was going to make it on the job if they could make it through the first meal helping residents eat, she said.

“(Residents) threw up, tried to eat other people’s food, acted like two-year-olds,” Simmons said.

Former Red Deer mayor Morris Flewwelling, 72, spent a summer as an aide at Michener Centre while attending university. He worked with some of the lowest-functioning male residents.

He said it was both heartbreaking and shocking when he toured his unit the day before he was to start work.

Residents usually wore canvas nighties and sat on the heated floor in the day room. Mostly quiet with the occasional tantrum, they would “while away the time with various repetitive activities like rocking,” he said.

“If I were to describe to you the conditions of the day room, you’d recoil. These people would mess on the floor and the next person who would come by would slip and fall in it. You were constantly bathing somebody and cleaning up the floor. It was very unpleasant — but by God it was clean and it was dry and it was warm and safe,” Flewwelling said.

They could not have received the same level of care at home, he said.

Neil St. Denys, 72, another graduate of the Mental Deficiency Nursing program, who started at Michener in 1962, said young residents were playful and high energy like any children.

Movie night at Michener, which often featured Westerns, fired the imagination of children on St. Denys’ unit.

“This group of Down (syndrome) kids would rearrange all the furniture inside the day rooms and they’d play cowboys and Indians until it was time to go to bed. They would re-enact that movie. You’d sit back and watch and laugh. They had it all organized. And they’d get the other ones involved,” St. Denys said.

But happy times were tempered with sadness. Life expectancy of those with Down syndrome was about 20 years. Few medications or treatments were available for people with developmental disabilities.

St. Denys began his nursing career at Michener when needles were made of steel, cleaned and sharpened for reuse. Each needle was pulled through a piece of sterile cotton batten to check if there were any barbs.

Today there are libraries focused exclusively on genetics. Back then, St. Denys said his genetics textbook was less than an inch thick.

“We had this boy who was autistic and we’d give him clothes and he’d throw them. We thought he was having another temper tantrum. But it wasn’t that. It was because when he touched it he had bad feelings for it.”

It’s now known that people with autism may respond negatively to some textures, he said.

“We didn’t put it all together. He couldn’t stand things like rayon.”

To solve the problem, staff let the boy pick out his own clothes, St. Denys said.

Stuart Fraser, Michener Centre’s first full-time pastor, said when he was just a visiting pastor at Michener in the 1960s, church services were held in the gymnasium with about 250 mostly higher-functioning residents and staff.

Services shrunk in size when many of those residents left to live in the community and in order to communicate with remaining residents, Fraser incorporated lots of singing, visuals and activity.

“For some, sitting still for an hour was not really an option and the things that I did didn’t require them to. We stood. We sang. Did role plays.”

He said services probably looked somewhat “chaotic.”

“We often had community clergy come. Some of them, I would have to encourage to carry on when someone was jumping up and down,” Fraser said with a smile.

Coming Wednesday: How families of residents view Michener’s impact.

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