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The importance of friendship when working with people with learning disabilities

During Learning Disability Week, we are supporting the campaign to highlight the importance of friendship when caring for people with learning disabilities. 

Friendship plays a crucial role in the development and care of people with learning disabilities. A recent Australian study followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years. It found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%.

For those with learning disabilities, lockdown has created many challenges, in particular the feelings of isolation and loneliness.

We have spoken to some of our fantastic healthcare workers to find out  how they foster friendships, and have met recent challenges relating to the impact of covid-19 on learning disability services.  

Meet our colleagues who work with people with learning disabilities

Lorna who has worked for Search Health & Social Care  most recently as an  interim registered manager for a learning disabilities service in Shropshire. Her role has been ensuring all the needs of the residents are clearly identified and met, all the while ensuring the staff  are the very best they can be in providing truly person-centred care and support.

Rosemary is a learning disabilities support worker in Rochdale. She has worked with Search Health & Social Care for five years within a number of different services. As a support worker, she helps people to live their lives as independently as they can.

For the past ten years, Ron has taken multiple assignments with Search Health & Social Care in a number of hospitals and services. As a specialist nurse, he provides nursing care to people with learning, physical and sensory disabilities.

Read on to find out how they are overcoming the impact of covid-19 on their service users with the power of friendship.

Why is it so important to develop strong bonds when working  with people with learning disabilities?

Lorna: Having Friendships is a basic human need and right. We all should be able to benefit from genuine, positive, strong and lasting friendships that make us feel valued and respected.

It is crucial that we actively encourage the people we care for to maintain the bonds that they have with family and friends. Equally, It is also of paramount importance that as a Manager I provide staff with a work environment that makes them feel valued and respected. There is the old saying,

“You cannot give out what you have not got.”

If staff do not feel valued and respected it will be harder for them to deliver the care and support that reflects these qualities.  

Rosemary: As human beings, the friendships we form with other people are crucial to our emotional wellbeing and our daily needs. Having someone to trust, someone to laugh with, someone to listen to and someone to share interests with is vital for improving quality of life.

Just because we have to maintain professional boundaries does not mean we cannot encourage friendships. We act as enablers by encouraging interaction with their friend and families and with those they live with.

Ron: Strong bonds are important for many different reasons. As a nurse it is crucial to listen and understand individuals to ascertain what their needs are and how we can help. But it is just as important to feel human and a valued member of society.

How has lockdown affected people with learning disabilities?

Rosemary: Lockdown has revealed new skills, and has driven some people to be more creative; but others have been affected mentally by the lack of activities and change to routine. Emotionally checking in with everyone has never been so important.

Ron: Lockdown has really affected learning disability services as usual routines have been broken. The skill has been to find different activities for the individuals that they really enjoy. We have also adapted previous activities so that they can be managed under the circumstances.

The lack of social contact that our service users get through the outside world such as visiting shops and being involved in social activities has meant that everyone in lockdown together had to strengthen those bonds of friendship in other ways.

Lorna: We have all learnt not to underestimate the abilities of those we support and our staff.  They have been remarkable. We have reinforced friendship through initiating lots of different activities from games, sing-along sessions, arts and crafts and spending time in the garden. Our people have also enjoyed regular drives in the car so that they can get a change of scenery and haven’t felt confined to four walls.  

We have helped people stay in touch with family and friends  through regular skype and telephone calls as well. It has also been important for us to provide reassurance to family members that their loved ones are being cared for.

One parent explained that during the lock down she had had a headache for weeks and had not been sleeping well. However, after seeing her son through the window, waving and talking to him, her headache vanished and she has had her best sleep in weeks.

We have learnt that as a team we can achieve great things and keep the people we support safe during such difficult times. They have all adapted so well to the changes in support techniques such as the frequent hand washing, sanitising and wearing masks.

They have been extremely resilient and have coped extremely well; remaining positive and upbeat for everyone.

How do you build friendships when working with people with learning disabilities?

Ron: In our capacity as nurses and support workers we have to maintain professional relationships with service users and professionals. Encouraging friendships is done via normalisation and empowerment. Normalisation is to create normal life opportunities for client through community, personal or service based contacts. Empowerment is about individuals determining what they want to do in the service provision or independently hence they have complete control of their schedule. Through this contact friendships are established.

Rosemary: We encourage them to do what they are good at, and what they are happy doing. Friendships are formed with others who share their love of those activities. We also make sure family contact is regular, positive, open and honest. The key to all this is listening and re-enforcing their opinions are valid, heard and considered.

Thank you from Search Health & Social Care

Now more than ever, we want to thank all the amazing work our keyworkers have done providing friendship to those who need it and preventing social isolation.

Could you make a difference and work alongside people with learning disabilities?

If you want to know more about working with our incredibly compassionate and professional team of services managers, support workers, social workers and nurses, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We have a wealth of health and social care jobs on offer.

Perhaps this article has sparked an interest in becoming a support worker?  Find out why becoming a support worker could be for you.

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