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For disabled and older people, finding genuinely accessible accommodation for a short break or holiday can be a fraught process. People seeking a respite break for the first time are naturally very wary of the term 'respite care', which perhaps conjures up visions of some cold, impersonal institution. And how many so-called 'accessible'hotels have turned out in reality to be a forest of steps and narrow doorways?
Vitalise is an organisation with over 40 years'experience of combining genuine accessibility and 24-hour care on call, whilst appearing the absolute antithesis of conventional notions of respite care.
Formerly called the Winged Fellowship Trust, Vitalise is a national charity that provides 8,000 weeks of breaks each year for disabled people - both adults and children - and carers at five fully accessible UK Centres in Bodmin, Cornwall, Chigwell, Essex, Nottingham, Southampton and Southport. Its experienced staff can cater for over 150 different disabilities. Vitalise provides 24-hour care-on-call and personal support and, in addition to specialist nursing care, each guest is accompanied by a volunteer who provides companionship and support.
On every Vitalise break the accent is very much on activity and enjoyment. Guests comment that our Centres - if they resemble anything - are more like holiday hotels than respite homes. This reflects the Vitalise ethos of informality, accessibilty and inclusion.
There is a choice of over 500 activities throughout the year, from gardening to sport, music to fishing and everything in between. In addition to daytime activities and excursions, evening entertainment is laid on. One is never bored on a Vitalise break! Over 35 different themed weeks focus on particular activities, allowing guests to experience activities that would otherwise be very difficult or even impossible for them to participate in. Vitalise also offers special Alzheimer's and MS Society weeks, which are always popular with guests.
It is the provision of 24-hour care-on-call that can make all the difference. Wheelchair user Toni Marie Barker enthuses:
"I have been a regular guest at Vitalise for about four years now and I can say hand on heart that being able to be away from home, safe in the knowledge that I will receive care of the highest quality, means so much to my family and me.
At home I manage my own care and while this system works very well, my care is delivered very much to a set structure, with hardly any room for spontaneity. This is where Vitalise really makes a difference! I am able to spend my time in a beautiful, relaxed setting, where I have the freedom to choose how my care is delivered and how my holiday is spent. It is nice to come to a place where I am accepted for who I am regardless of my disability. I have made many life-long friends here, who love their holidays with Vitalise as much as I do!"
In addition to residential breaks, Vitalise offers day services, which are available at the Centre in Cornwall and their New Horizons Day Centre in Derby. New Horizons is the UK's first 'lifestyle centre'offering adults with high-level needs a bespoke day service that promotes independence.
As someone who has become disabled himself, Vitalise's Chairman John Spence knows just how important accessibility is when taking a break or holiday: "All too often disabled people are isolated in their homes, with limited options as to how they can spend their time usefully. This is why we are now also offering day services as well as residential breaks. Disabled people - quite rightly - now have greater expectations of what services could and should be provided, and access to quality respite breaks and holidays is a key one of them. "
Kathleen Bamping, 49, is a veteran of three Vitalise Centres over almost ten years.
I was first introduced to Vitalise when I started volunteering at Sandpipers, Southport back in July 1997. I was very nervous as I went on my own, not knowing what to expect, suddenly I was amongst electric wheelchairs buzzing about in a lively atmosphere but where everything was most relaxed.
My feet didn't touch the ground! There was a mixture of care linked with duty, such as helping in the dining room or getting the guests ready for a trip and seeing them all boarded safely on the coach. Volunteers all sit together at the back of the coach, which is a special time to get to know each other and have a good old chat.
By the end of the week, although quite tired, we felt sad that we were all going our separate ways, but vowing that we would keep in touch. I still keep in touch with another volunteer who now lives in Spain and that is the icing on the cake for me - meeting guests and volunteers who come from all over the world.
On a later visit I met a lovely couple of guests who often peered over the rail overlooking the pool.
I asked the lady, Kirsty, if she would like a swim. "Oh I couldn't do that" she said, that wouldn't be possible!" I said "anything is possible here" and her volunteer, Marilyn, and I set about arranging it. We borrowed a costume and armed ourselves with a rubber ring, shower chair and towels, ready for Kirsty's first swim, and gently hoisted her into the warm water. Her partner Jim said" I must see for myself -could I be with her by the pool?" "Come on Jim" I said, "and bring your camera, you're not going to miss the picture". Kirsty had a great time as she was able to walk along the bottom of the pool. To see the look on Kirsty and Jim's faces brought tears to our eyes!
It's not only these things that makes Vitalise what it is, but when you see the results, and achievements made by the guests, then that's what makes it all worthwhile. I hope my story encourages more mature volunteers to come and experience for themselves the joy of giving their time to caring for guests who have a disability.
Bernie Thorley has also clocked up ten years as a Vitalise volunteer.
When I retired 10 years ago I thought "I am retiring. I've worked all my life - take it easy". But you don't realise you need to keep occupied. I missed my workmates. I have some hobbies but I needed more. One day I saw an advert:" Volunteers for holiday centres for disabled people, retired people welcome". So I phoned up and booked myself in for a week.
I thought I would do it for a couple of years but now 10 years later I am still volunteering. I am 77 now and have done 165 weeks and I am still enjoying it. It seems like another phase in my life, as though I have had another life in my retirement. I seem to have forgotten I ever went to work!
There must be a lot of people who retire and want something to do like myself. The best thing about volunteering with Vitalise is that you meet people of all ages and all nationalities. Where else would you find an organisation where 17 year olds and 77 year olds all work together to help disabled people have a great holiday?
If you would like to know more about holidays with Vitalise or volunteering please visit their website www.vitalise.org.uk, call the booking line 0845 345 1972
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