It is somewhat ironic that Red Deer’s first group home for the developmentally disabled was purchased in 1969 by the Michener Centre parents organization, the same group that today is fighting tooth and nail against the government’s order to move some 120 current Michener residents into group and seniors homes.
That first West Park group home housed 10 female residents who were already working in the community, and had been returning to the Alberta School Hospital in the evenings before moving into the new home.
The purchase of the home came in the same year that the Blair Report was released in the province, urging the depopulation of Michener Centre and the establishment of living spaces in the community.
Hundreds of higher-functioning residents were moved out in the years that followed, with many living on their own. But for those who required group homes in which to live, it was not as easy as simply building a house and having people move in.
Community opposition was, at times, strong enough to ensure group homes would not be located in particular neighbourhoods.
The Michener group homes — which will remain operational despite the rest of the centre’s closure — were built in a cluster near the centre because there was vocal opposition to the spread of homes for the disabled in the city.
By 1992, over 1,000 people had left Michener and there were only about 15 group homes in Red Deer, and it was around that time that that number would increase significantly. About 15 new homes are being built and are expected be ready for occupancy this year alone in Red Deer and surrounding communities to accommodate current Michener residents.
So, if the parents organization of 45 years ago embraced transitions away from Michener, why is the organization today inexhaustible in its efforts to block the planned moves?
Many members say they support community living in principle, they just do not support community living for their loved ones.
Jody Kvern has tried group homes, but now finds herself back at Michener Centre, where she has spent most of her life; sister Lee Kvern says her normally easygoing sister became difficult and occasionally violent in the community.
Brian Reed argues that moving his brother Bruce into a group home would hasten his death.
There is no argument among families that the system today that supports families to raise their disabled children at home before they transition into a group home or independent living arrangement upon adulthood is better.
But, as Mark Keohane, brother to a longtime resident, puts it, Michener residents should not be simply moved into group homes the same way as those with disabilities growing up today are — because it is the politically correct thing to do.
Doing so ignores the fact that most Michener residents have only known one way of living, and that is at the centre, he said.
“They’ve been victimized once due to ideology, and now we’re revictimizing them again due to ideology. Do they deserve that?” says Lisa Kaye-Stanisky, whose brother Floyd has lived at Michener for over 50 years.
For people who have been involved in the community living arena over the years, moves into the community are not seen as victimizing those with disabilities, but humanizing them.
Allan Case worked over 30 years at Michener and then, in the ‘90s, started working in group homes, where he says his charges came out of their shells and were markedly happier.
Ali Taplay spent about eight weeks at Michener after graduating college over 30 years ago. She quit in part because of the resistance to change at Michener. Taplay has spent the last three decades working in community living and training people to work with developmentally disabled people.
She says any institutional setting breeds inhumane support simply because of the size of the place and the routine and structure that largeness demands.
Malerie Meeker too has spent decades working with community living agencies in B.C., where she says she has seen innumerable lives improve as people have transitioned out of large institutions.
“The measure of any person with a disability, of both their safety as well as their happiness, is directly related to the number of unpaid people in their lives . . . and I think there is so much more opportunity to be in relationships in community. You go to the coffee shop every Tuesday week after week and you will make friends with the other people who go to the coffee shop on Tuesdays. Those opportunities to meet people and be in relationships are so much more prevalent if somebody lives in community,” says Meeker.
But, she adds, community living has in some ways come full circle, with some large agencies becoming almost like the institutions they have replaced. There is still too much control over people’s lives, she says. Staff shortages and funding shortfalls might regularly mean a resident cannot go and do what they would like to do.
There are 37 community living agencies in the Alberta Health Services Central Zone — an administrative region that stretches from Nordegg to Lloydminster and Drumheller in the east — operating about 190 group homes. Twenty-seven of the agencies operate as non-profits. Approximately 2,500 staff are spread across the organizations.
Parkland Community Living and Support Services is both one of the largest and oldest agencies in the entire province. With the four new homes the agency is building in Red Deer to accommodate Michener moves, Parkland CLASS will soon operate 40 group homes, most of which are in the city.
Having housed people coming out of Michener for decades, Parkland chief operating officer Dan Verstraete says the agency is facing nothing new with the current situation. But it is applying what staff have learned from the hundreds of transitions the agency has done over the years. It incorporates design features that increase living space for residents. It is proactive in making adjustments to the homes now during construction that residents may not require today for accessibility, but likely will as they age.
Central Alberta Residence Society (CARS), a 35-year-old organization that now serves about 80 individuals in group homes and independent living settings, also is incorporating elements into its two new group home builds to allow residents to “age in place.” Its last major build — a wide bungalow home to five residents — features extra-wide hallways, no stairs, two accessible bathrooms, laminate flooring instead of carpet, and raised garden beds in the backyard for people in wheelchairs.
While its two builds this year will be in smaller lots in newer neighbourhoods, executive director Miriam Kaye says the homes will still be structured to serve people for a long time. In the past, residents would regularly have to move out of their group homes into more accessible domiciles as their needs increased with age.
In total, 10 agencies in Central Alberta have received funding to create 51 new spaces for the transition process, at a budgeted cost of approximately $10 million. Alongside long-standing agencies like Parkland CLASS and CARS are agencies like Cosmos and Employment Placement and Support Services that are new to providing residential supports for developmentally challenged individuals.
The province’s target date for emptying Michener has been pushed back largely because new spaces are only now becoming available. Some home builds — primarily in new neighbourhoods on Red Deer’s eastern edge, far from the city centre — have not yet begun.
Fourteen residents have been moved out of Michener since last March when the province announced it planned to close the institutional buildings.