Custom-fitted apartments allow people with disabilities to take care of themselves and give them the confidence to fulfil their dreams.
At 16, Bree Synot was feeling ready to give up on life. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones, the prospect of finding a wheelchair-friendly house suitable for her needs was always going to be tough.
Her mother knew some tough love was needed. Bree moved out of the family home and into two different respite homes. But the next 6½ months would be “painful”. Every Friday Bree would pack up her room at Bacchus Marsh, more than an hour away from Melbourne, to spend the weekends at a separate respite home in Altona.
“Not being settled and having a ‘home’ to go to, shifting between houses, not seeing family that often and feeling alone is the worst feeling I have ever felt,” Bree says.
Bree Synot in her disability friendly home in Abbotsford. Photo: Penny Stephens
And the swapping between dual respite homes could easily get worse. Bree knew, that like 6000 other Australians aged under 65 with disabilities, she could easily be facing spending the rest of her life in a nursing home.
The ray of hope came in the form of the Summer Foundation. Set up by Di Winkler, an occupational therapist, the organisation initially began researching the plight of younger people trapped in aged care but now focuses on establishing solutions to the decades-old issue.
More recently, Winkler decided to “get her hands dirty” and the Summer Foundation bought two units to prove that “if you provide really good quality housing that is well designed, in a good location and incorporates technology, it fosters independence”. The demonstration project involves six apartments for people with a disability spread throughout a 50-strong apartment complex. The four other apartments are funded by the Transport Accident Commission.
Bree Synot in her disability-friendly home in Abbotsford, Melbourne. Photo: Penny Stephens
Bree’s case manager contacted the Summer Foundation to see if she would qualify and, after a tense 6½ months waiting, the happy phone call came. In July 2014 Bree moved in.
Privacy and the freedom to burn a candle were the two things Bree immediately enjoyed. But the longer-term changes were transformative. In just a few months, Bree was no longer relying on her mother to change her bed and do the washing. She was indulging her lifelong passion to become a chef and cook regularly. The ability to look after herself, all made possible by her custom-fitted apartment gave her confidence. She tried her hand at volunteering and welcomed a bichon frise puppy into her home.
Thanks to her iPad app connected to her home’s locks, airconditioning and blinds, she could let visitors in without moving from her bed, the couch or her chair. On one occasion she was able to let a support worker into her apartment from her hospital bed.
Support workers are available onsite around the clock in case of an emergency. Traditionally, their time would be bought in two-hour blocks but by mapping each resident’s individual needs and preferences, the support is rostered much more efficiently.
“With this model you can work it out so that people get to spread their hours across the week effectively,” Winkler says. The project is only halfway through its two-year research term but the halfway outcomes are all positive.
From Bree’s perspective, there is no doubt she is looking forward to a radically different future. She has set herself two main goals: to get her pain management under control and get a full-time job.
“I was depressed and gave up on the world and now I want to live and prove to myself and my family that I can live a normal life,” she says.
The Summer Foundation wants to see an Australia where, whenever medium to high-density housing is being built, housing for people with disabilities is automatically included.
“We don’t want to keep building the same old segregated specialist disability housing, it should just be part of mainstream housing,” Winkler says.