New homes and a new approach to providing support for people with learning disabilities

In this guest blog, Mark Goodman, chief executive officer of MyLife, a residential support service in Hartlepool that enables people with complex needs to live semi-independently in the community, describes preparations for the first resident’s arrival.

After much planning, preparation and hard work, the MyLife service at Hartlepool is set to welcome its first service user. When she or he arrives, we’ll start putting our ideas and experience into practice at MyLife’s four bungalows at Burbank.

It’ll be home for up to 12 people with learning disabilities needing intensive support, in two bungalows with four residents, and two for two people. The plan is that they’ll stay with us for as long as they need support. Our guiding principle from the start has been to build on evidence-based research to create a tailor-made environment for people to engage with the community.

MyLife was created to meet a national requirement for people with learning disabilities and autism to live in purpose-designed, supportive environments within local communities, which provide more sustainable support than hospitals and institutional settings and an opportunity to move on from living at home.

From the outset we’ve been advised by Professor Barry Carpenter OBE, whose international learning disability expertise has helped us create a ‘Six Pillars’ therapeutic focus. These ‘pillars’ are:

MyLife’s bungalows have been designed with an attention to detail that’ll make them a therapeutic home. For example, hallways are 8ft wide, to allow extra space for people who easily feel crowded.

The colour scheme is light and has elements of the colour purple throughout, because studies have shown it to have a calming effect.

The walls have only a few pictures to avoid overstimulation, and the kitchens are laid out logically – crockery and cutlery in their own sections and cupboards separate from appliances, for instance. The approach to residents’ rooms is clear, to help them feel safe. Outside, the gardens are laid out in an orderly way, with straight lines and clear borders so the overall effect is soothing.

But the buildings are the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who’s worked in this sector knows its human interaction that makes the therapeutic difference: spotting potential problems before they happen, understanding service users as individuals, and knowing how to build on progress.

We want to work with service users to help them get the most out of life, supporting them to engage with the community, and benefit from the same opportunities as everyone else. With this in mind, MyLife’s training is focused on making sure residents get the most out of life – shopping, playing sports, eating out with friends – and understanding those triggers that might cause anxiety and behaviour difficulties, so they are able to anticipate and mitigate it.

There’s a feeling of excitement and anticipation here now. We’ve already been working with some service users in the community and we’ve seen how it can improve life not just for the person concerned but families as well. Now we are eager to show how engaging with the community in a supported environment can be just as effective.

It’s the future

Sir Stephen Bubb’s review highlighted how this kind of approach should be the future of learning disability care in the UK.

In his report’s foreword, Sir Stephen said commissioning should: “enable providers to work in partnership to offer new facilities, to ensure community support and independence for people with learning disabilities and/or autism. In particular I argued that people with learning disabilities and/or autism must have a central role in designing the care that will best meet their needs.”

I feel our service will show the kind of effective community support that can result when providers and commissioners work together constructively.

We believe our methods will ultimately also be more cost effective. Acute hospital care is excessively expensive, and all too frequently more traditional community support structures end up being a sticking plaster, which are insufficiently resourced to handle any crises, let alone prevent them. Sadly, responses to crises may see service users return to acute care, negating any original savings.

By building community engagement and integrating intensive support into care from the start, we believe we can create a structure that works better for service users and those holding the purse strings.

One of the lynchpins of our development at Burbank is MyLife’s chief operating officer, Gary Laville. His longstanding connections make Hartlepool the natural home for this kind of service. It’s where he started as a residential unit manager, and the council and the local NHS have historically been open to new approaches. That’s been a huge help as we’ve been working closely with commissioners to make sure the service fits the needs of the community.

As someone once said, it’s the end of the beginning.