Locals reluctant to welcome homes for people with special needs

Meegomäe Special Care Home in Southern Estonia.
Meegomäe Special Care Home in Southern Estonia. Source: ERR

The state's wish to close old special care homes and have people with intellectual disabilities living in communities is often met with resistance from locals. Recent examples concern Kuressaare and Narva. AS Hoolekandeteenused describes opposition as typical behavior.

If during Soviet times, people with intellectual special needs were usually hidden away in special care homes built in places with beautiful natural surroundings where 300-500 of them lived in a single building, the modern understanding is that they have the same right as everyone else and isolating them is not sensible.

"Our purpose can be summed up in a single sentence – we believe that everyone has the right to live at home, not an institution. That is why we are closing old grand care homes and bringing people with special needs to live in communities," said head of PR for the state company Katrin Pärgmäe.

Unfortunately, a lot of people do not want those with special needs living close to their homes. Hoolekandeteenused wanted to build a two-story care home with four apartments in Narva that would have accommodated 24 people with intellectual disabilities. Narva Mayor Aleksei Jevgrafov said such an institution should not be located in the city as it would mean sick and potentially dangerous people would be walking the streets unchecked.

Pärgmäe said that the matter is still unresolved in Narva and the company is about to start construction of care homes in Põltsamaa and Paide. That locals tend to protest such plans is typical behavior that occurs very frequently, she added.

"It is an old fear or preconception – you do not know who will be living there and you start fighting it just in case," Pärgmäe said.

The recent example is from Kuressaare where a location had already been selected for a home for people with intellectual special needs and an application filed for the design criteria plan before nearby apartment associations started protesting the project and the Saaremaa municipality government eventually rejected AS Hoolekandeteenused's application.

Pärgmäe said that people with special needs also have the right to inhabit a developed area on equal grounds with everyone else. Having a special need does not make one a second-class citizen who should live on the fringe of the community – they are also allowed to live in densely populated areas and prized neighborhoods.

She added that if the community has fears, efforts should be aimed at breaking down these fears and preconceived notions, instead of warding off people with special needs.

Deputy Mayor of Saaremaa Municipality Marili Niits said that there were other reasons besides opposition from residents, pointing to technical nuances, while she also said that reluctance from the local community is commonplace. She added that local residents need to be explained who the newcomers are and the function of the building.

"Deliberations of where this particular unit will be located will continue. There will be meetings this week and the matter remains open for now," she said.

Niits said they are working to open the unit in Saaremaa, while the time frame and potential locations will become clear in the course of negotiations, adding that both AS Hoolekandeteenused and local residents have to be consulted. The municipality is also looking into other local governments' experiences with such institutions.

Lihula example shows fears were baseless

The Lääneranna municipality in Lääne County is home to the Lihula Südamekodu where three family homes cater to 30 clients with special intellectual needs. The homes were completed in late 2018 and house the denizens of the former Koluvere Care Home.

Head of the Lihula Südamekodu Vanda Birnbaum said the care homes were opened after serious efforts to raise awareness in the area.

"The most important thing is to notify the people in the area right from the beginning of the project," she said. "I was meeting potential clients in Koluvere a year before the project was even created, while the local newspaper ran a story on what I saw and how they're doing. The municipality government was on board from the first."

Asked about any problems, Birnbaum said a few of their clients have taken an interest in dumpsters and that a person with an intellectual disability might need to be told something is not right more than once. She said, however, that there have been no major issues between her clients and local residents in Lihula.

Clients of Lihula Südamekodu can walk the streets and get fresh air but have so much to do on the care home's grounds that they often help out panting greenery and doing other odd jobs. Stronger men have been given shovels and sent to help out elsewhere in the town.

Birnbaum said that people are most afraid of violent characters roaming the streets – people think all sorts of things if they have not had contact with people with special needs. That is why it's necessary to explain that the clients of care homes are people like everyone else and that mental illness can hit any family. The local government must also be supportive and raise awareness.

New homes provide the chance of a real life

By today, Estonia has seven homes for people with special intellectual needs in Pärnu, Paldiski and Tallinn, with 550 people living in family houses in communities.

That is why the company knows what really happens. Pärgmäe said that their clients usually get along well with neighbors, with the locals realizing that someone's special need means they require help with certain things. Some people need help getting dressed or have to be told how to take the bus.

"The mayor of Paide was very sweet when they said that these are our sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers who need that unit," Pärgmäe said, adding that the aim is for people who have lived their whole lives in Paide and whose parents can no longer take care of them once they grow up to be given a home-like solution in a nearby care home.

The past nine years have seen new homes built for 1,100 people who used to live in special care homes, with plans for another 600 places to be created by 2022. The deadline is associated with the EU support period that will close then, while AS Hoolekandeteenused also wants to close two still operational major care homes in Võisiku and Sõmera, with all residents given new homes at the same time.

"When we carried out a satisfaction survey among people who moved in 2018 and asked them what they like about their new homes, they said they can go to work, the hairdresser, theater with their friends instead of having to only go on excursions with the care home's bus. That they can live a real life," Pärgmäe explained.

Care homes located in communities should reduce social inequality and allow people with special needs to live close to their loved ones. Preferred locations are those with over 2,000 permanent residents and where shops, pharmacies and other important services are a short walk or bus ride away.

Data from the Social Insurance Board suggests there are 55,000 people with a diagnosed mental disorder or intellectual disability in Estonia 44,000 of whom live at home, with 11,000 living in care homes or receiving support services.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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