Friendship Really Matters: 29,000 people with learning disabilities worry about leaving elderly parents alone. This is how church community groups can make a difference

29,000 people1 with learning disabilities live with parents aged 70-plus.

prospects-fusion-group-tagThe Learning Disability Commission states that ‘People with a learning disability in this situation often find themselves isolated and have less time to make friends and engage in social activities, because they are worried about leaving an elderly relative at home alone.’

This problem is increasing, with the number of people with learning disabilities over 60 predicted to rise by one-third2 over the 20 years to 2021.

As places of welcome and community, churches can play an important part in providing support to people with learning disabilities and reducing isolation.

Trowbridge Friends Link

Trowbridge Friends Link group provides community connections and support to people with learning disabilities.

Cath Pilling founded this group when she noticed her disabled daughter and friends were struggling with the logistics that make friendships happen, such as co-ordinating where or when to meet.

‘We’re all social creatures, and we need to mix and get out and about.’Cath Pilling

Cath arranged a launch party for the group, which drew 100 people, and led to many more connections with disabled people who were keen to find out what social opportunities there were in the area.

Alison, 38, is one of the group members, and lives in Trowbridge with her parents who are in their late 60s. Before she joined local group Friends Link, she says: ‘I didn’t have a social life, I didn’t go out very much and when I did it was with my parents.’

Alison – with other group members – organises the busy social calendar for Trowbridge Friends Link and helps to write their newsletter. Regular events include swimming dates, one-off trips and entertainment events. Walks and craft events are some of Alison’s favourites.

For Link members like Alison, finding friends has made life much more livable: ‘I’ve connected with people I met in the past, and age doesn’t matter in Friends Link – there are lots of young people and older ones too. I feel more independent and I have my own life.’

The group is informally supported by Trowbridge churches, and Cath’s husband Myles volunteers with Livability and Prospects (the charity that became part of the Livability group in May 2016). They support Trowbridge Friends Link and help churches in other areas who want to minister to disabled people locally.

Fusion – at Kings Church, Eastbourne

Claire Howell runs Fusion at King’s Church, Eastbourne to provide a place of community and inclusion: ‘We don’t identify Fusion as a group for people with disabilities, as some of the group doesn’t identify as disabled.’

Two of the charity’s service users are longstanding members of Fusion. The group came into being when Claire noticed that some people were not fully engage with the service on Sundays.

Fusion meets once a week, and mixes hanging out together with pastoral care and exploring faith. ‘For the first half, we just muck around – pool, table tennis, manicures, chat, adult colouring, refreshments, all quite laid back,” says Claire. “For the second half, people share their news, we have some Bible teaching and then we pray for each other. We’ve created space and time to look at faith.’

This approach has flowed into meaningful friendships: ‘Through Fusion, people have developed relationships with different people in the church and are part of other church teams, like our café or children’s church. They regularly join in church social events.’

Is your church providing a place of welcome?

‘If churches take time to consider how people with learning disabilities connect with others, they can play an important role in a disabled person’s social network,’ says Gordon Gill, now Livability’s Head of Church Giving. Gordon joined the Livability group through Prospects, a charity which specialises in supporting people with learning disabilities and which merged this year with Livability.

‘Church is an ideal place to make people feel truly included so they can build real friendships’Gordon Gill

1Foundation for People with Learining Disabilities
2Public Health England (2010)

Can you help connect people this Christmas?

Our work to help connect people with their community is only possible thanks to the friendship of our supporters. This Christmas, your support could help with:

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Supporting people recover from mental health illness by taking part in Flourish – our horticultural therapy programme at Livability’s wellbeing centre.
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Enabling disabled people express their creativity and build friendships through art classes and community programmes.
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Coaching people facing barriers to employment in setting up their own business.

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