I volunteer for a local care center here in Calgary. Volunteering adds an extra dimension to life. My regular gig for the past two years has been facilitating an art group once a week. The painting you see is one of mine. I help the resident artists to sketch layouts for their paintings on canvas, mix paints and clean up afterwards. It is a hectic afternoon, but as with most volunteering, the rewards always outweigh the effort. And it is a nice diversion from writing.
Once in a while a general call goes out for volunteers to assist with other events. Off-site activities are a big draw and need extra helpers to push wheelchairs, so I’ll sign up for those if I’m available. Last summer I helped with trips to Global Fest (international fireworks competition) and to the Strathmore Rodeo. In the fall I signed up to help with a “simple outing” described as a country drive and picnic. Compared to fireworks and rodeos, a picnic lunch did not sound all that exciting, but to the residents going out that day it was a big deal.
Our plan was to drive to the KFC in Deer Run, grab some take-out and go have our picnic at nearby Fish Creek Park. The weather was nice and the fall colours were beautiful. It sounded easy.
The participants* were already waiting in the front lobby when I arrived a half hour early. I hurried downstairs to the volunteer lounge, signed in, grabbed my name tag and headed back up to the lobby. Being early gave me a chance to chat with residents before the wheelchair accessible bus arrived. The recreational therapist made sure everyone had what they needed before we loaded up.
Most able-bodied people, (especially those who do not have friends or family with a disability) take something like going out for a drive for granted. It is relatively easy for most families to pack a lunch or hit the nearest drive thru, and head out to the park for a picnic. An outing from a care facility is not the same as packing up the family for a Sunday drive, unless your family includes five people in wheelchairs. I give my head a shake when I remember how I used to complain about the hassle of packing up a diaper bag or a stroller to go somewhere with a couple of young children in tow. Little did I know.
The load up alone took over 20 minutes as each resident was lifted into the bus using a ramp and their wheelchair secured with multiple belts hooked to wall and floor anchors. The bus was too big to go through a drive thru, so it was just as well that this particular KFC did not have that option. But without an outdoor menu board, it was hard for some of the people to choose what meal they wanted. Even some who knew what they wanted had trouble communicating it due to their disabilities.
The Recreational Aide and I ran back and forth between bus and restaurant a few times before the food orders were decided and ready to go. We grabbed extra napkins. The distinct aroma of KFC taunted us on the way to the park and everyone was eager to eat.
We should have done our homework and planned ahead a little better. Wheelchair accessibility and a convenient picnic area are hard to come by on a warm Friday afternoon before a long weekend. The handi-bus driver spotted some tables in the woods at the far end of the parking lot and away from the crowds. Out there we were far from wheelchair friendly territory. The gravel pathways and dirt track required a lot of pushing and manoeuvring to get everyone settled into place but we finally set out the food and drinks.
We forgot to bring drinking straws, thank goodness for the extra napkins.
After lunch was cleaned up, the trip back to the bus was easier because we knew the safest route across the gravel and we had cleared away most of the dead fall sticks and other debris on our way in. Even so, M___ , in her brand new motorized wheelchair was understandably nervous about getting stuck or damaging her chair.
Nothing is easy or straightforward when it comes to organizing and executing off-site activities for people with limited mobility. You can never assume that any location is truly accessible, with adequate ramps, wide doors and paved surfaces for wheelchairs and walkers. The time involved in securely transporting people confined to wheelchairs, gaining access to restaurants, and finding elevators is always a factor.
Since our adventure in Fish Creek last fall, I’ve been on another outing, this one to the Devonian Gardens in downtown Calgary. Recent renovations to the gardens should have ensured complete accessibility, and in most ways it did, but for various reasons, that outing was just as challenging as going on the picnic, especially when it came to securing elevators and finding space for a large handi-bus to load and unload.
Patience is the key when it comes to dealing with disabilities. I’ve learned a lot of patience. As a volunteer I also realize that the logistics of ensuring the health and safety of people living in a care facility are truly daunting. My greatest respect goes out to the staff and therapists who do their job every day.
This is not a call for everyone to go out and volunteer at a senior’s home or care facility. Do as your heart leads you, but the next time able-bodied you is standing at an elevator with a couple of Venti Lattes in hand (instead of taking the escalator or, heaven forbid, the stairs), step back, hold the door and let the wheelchairs in first please. And never take for granted the freedom you have to go out to a picnic in the park or on a Sunday drive.
*I do not give the name of the care center or residents for reasons of confidentiality.