IHC breaks through the loneliness of lockdown

Within days of the COVID-19 Level 4 lockdown, IHC had swung into action to break through the loneliness and hardship of self-isolation for people with intellectual disabilities.

After first locking down our homes to ensure that the 3000 people we support were safe, IHC turned to help families struggling to provide care 24/7 for young disabled children and to reach intellectually disabled people living in isolation in the community.

IHC General Manager Janine Stewart says IHC mobilised its nationwide volunteer network and worked with partners in the disability sector to connect with people online and on the phone.

Awhi-at-home, a Facebook page where parents of disabled children can connect, went live within a week allowing families to share information and experiences with other parents and to access online sessions with play therapists, music therapists and behavioural therapists.

Awhi means embrace and during the four-plus weeks of Level 4 lockdown many parents responded to the embrace. Posts on Awhi-at-home reached 54,400 people and 7500 people engaged with the posts. There were nearly 29,000 video views.

In one post Kāpiti Mum Rebekah Corlett said even though TV school was on in the background, her children Sophia, 11, and Ryan, 8, preferred a bit of self-directed learning. Sophia has autism.

“On Awhi-at-home I enjoyed seeing real parents, who were honest about the challenges of rāhui/lockdown,” she says. 

“Social media is jam-packed with ‘insta-perfect’ mums in their tidy houses, bragging about baking and clever craft projects with their kids and their home schooling ‘wins’ which I couldn’t relate to. The parents on Awhi-at-home were honest and real. It feels good to be able to nod your head in agreement, in solidarity with other parents and feel less isolated.”

Awhi-at-home is a community of parents coordinated by IHC and involves a wide range of organisations, including Parent to Parent, Explore Behaviour Support, the Ministry of Education, Parent Resource Centre, the Down Syndrome Association and Skylight.

Janine says it has been clear from the late-night posts coming in between 11pm and 1am, that parents were able to reach out only once their children had gone to bed. She says parents need to connect beyond the hours of 9am and 5pm and they were helping each other to find solutions that worked for them.

One of the Awhi team, Phil Clarke, Head of Library and Information Resourcing for IHC, says with no access to physical library resources, Facebook was the obvious platform for Awhi-at-home. “It’s a place where parents can ask for help and we can ask them what they need.”

Phil says an early breakthrough came when parents asked if they could take a child for a drive to settle them. IHC Director of Advocacy Trish Grant contacted Police and got the green light as long as parents stayed in their neighbourhoods. “That got huge engagement,” he says. 

Video interviews with parents and therapists by Christchurch film director and writer Fiona McKenzie – locked down with her disabled daughter Claudia and family – have been a hit with parents. “She is a parent who is living it – she can engage with parents,” Phil says. As well, Fiona collaborated with musician Marian Burns on a music video of Marian’s song Because of You with contributed footage from the Awhi-at-home group.

Phil says the team is being guided by the parents. “We asked: ‘What are your crazy ideas about respite? If you do could do anything as we go through the levels, what would it be?’ That is the sort of thing that we could collate and pass on to other organisations that might be able to supply the respite and provide some of the solutions.”

Two days after New Zealand moved into Level 4 lockdown IHC and Carers NZ launched Wecare.kiwi – a free support network for people living on their own, or caring for a vulnerable person. Carers NZ triaged the requests for help and then referred family carers or the person with a disability to IHC. In the next four weeks IHC volunteers fielded more than 300 calls from people, arranged for pick-ups of prescriptions and groceries and connected people with other services they needed, while Carers NZ sent out more than 180 care packs.

One volunteer was able to help a Whangarei woman living with two young grandchildren who couldn’t get out to shop. The volunteer arranged for the local Driving Miss Daisy franchise to do her weekly shopping, free of charge.

IHC National Manager of Volunteering and Community Development Sue Kobar says calls have now moved from people seeking food or service delivery to providing reassurance. “There are many concerns arising about what their future will be like. Anxiety is very high within families and being a listening ear has been very helpful to many of the parents,” she says.

Without access to the internet or smartphones many people with intellectual disabilities have been effectively cut off from their communities. People have reported not being able to get food, confusion about how to pay bills, needing Easy Read information about the virus, and feeling lonely. People First New Zealand, IHC and the Personal Advocacy and Safeguarding Adults Trust collaborated on a helpline – 0800 20 60 70. People First NZ staff responded to calls, and the three organisations worked together to make sure everyone got the help they needed.
Take a break with us
The IHC Take a break with us respite programme has provided gift cards to some families to help with shopping – and a few Easter treats.

Thank you for the awesome gift card for groceries. I did a shop before Easter and got the kids some marshmallow eggs as a treat. I even got myself a big block of Caramello, which I hid from everyone. Me and my husband have two squares each with a cuppa when watching TV when the kids have gone to bed – making it last all week. Our little treat. Heaven.
Awhi Community
People with intellectual disabilities on lockdown in our houses are not missing out on the online ‘embrace’ with Awhi Community. IHC Associations throughout the country have contributed $300,000 towards making sure people can stay connected with friends and families. Families have been anxious about not being able to see their family member. 

These funds and other grants will help us to get additional devices into our homes to ensure families can connect. A grant already received for the Otago area, will allow us to start there. 
IHC has been working with the Office for Disability Issues and other organisations on a weekly survey to help understand the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities. The results are reported back to the Government.
Emergency appeal
Much of the funding for all the innovation has come from generous donors, and IHC has set up an emergency fund at ihc.org.nz/emergency for more kind Kiwis to show their care and support for the intellectually disabled community.


Photo caption: Kāpiti kids Ryan and Sophia Corlett would rather do a bit of self-directed learning.


This story was published in Community Moves. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members.

Read the full issue of Community Moves online here.