Arunima, was the first assisted living facility I heard about a few years ago and was full of admiration for the people behind this venture. Today, I feel honoured to interview Aparna, the founder-director of Arunima. Aparna is a wonderful soul, who has provided a safe home for many special needs individuals. She answered the haunting question of ‘What after us?’ with an inspiring venture! Throughout the interview, you will find glimpses of life at Arunima.
Q) What was your inspiration behind starting Arunima and a few details about the initial days…
Arunima (aka Runi), my sister, who is 38 years old now, was my inspiration. She has been with me most of our lives, since our mother passed away when we were both very young. She was 28 and it was becoming more and more challenging to provide a meaningful life to her. I had young children, was working, and while Runi was a welcome part of our family, she was unhappy with nothing of her own to do. Apart from this was her growing and ever present dependency on me, and the fear about what would become of her if something were to happen to me. I am a certified special educator, and while I loved my work, there was always a sense that I was not able to make enough of a difference in my own sister’s life. A search for answers followed, and my father and I came to the conclusion that WE had to create something for her, and others, that would be a place that families could look to for current as well as future support. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q) How many residents are currently in Arunima, their age group please..
There are 18 residents at Arunima, and they range in age from 17-38. In other words, this is an adult centered program. We also have a day program, and our residents are joined by 5 day trainees for about 6-9 hours.
Q) A few details about your team..
First of all, this is a team I am so grateful for, both as the Director as well as a family member. We have 17 staff working directly with our friends at Arunima, and this group of workers includes men as well as women. A Program Coordinator heads the team. Talvinder has 7 years experience working in the care sector in the UK, and has brought a wealth of ideas and professional standards to Arunima. The rest of our team is made up of a few special educators, but mostly individuals who approached us, without a background in special education, but a strong desire to work in a program such as ours. They receive intensive in house training, both theoretical as well as practical, for three months, before they are considered ready to take on independent responsibility.
Q) How are they engaged throughout the day?
Learning begins for each one of us, the moment we wake up, and I would say it is the same for our friends at Arunima. From getting one’s morning milk/tea snacks independently, to making beds, activities of daily living including personal care, breakfast and getting ready for work, our days begin like everyone else’s. Everyone leaves for the Training Center at 9:30. There, each person is engaged in a variety of activities, ranging from cooking, shopping, yoga, exercises, physical fitness, sensory activities, social skills training, vocational workshop activities, gardening, conversations and discussions, Job Skills training, IT training….the list is long and ever evolving.
We come back from work at around 1:45, and lunch is followed by free time where everyone rests. And then starts the evening routine which includes household chores, walks, games, TV time, bath, dinner and sleep.
Q) What are the other facilities available at Arunima?
I think the question is answered above….but we have not created any special facilities. We prefer for our friends to use facilities like the gym, swimming pool, playgrounds, hospitals, that are available to the rest of the community too.
Q) Tell us more about Brand Arunima? Your recycled planters are truly unique! What are the other products available?
Thank you :-).
As mentioned above, our friends are involved in vocational training and our sheltered workshop as well. Brand Arunima is the name we use to sell the products we make at our sheltered workshop. The products have evolved from the needs and interests of our friends, as well as from some research into market demands. We sell handmade paper and fabric products such as jewelry, stationary and some utility items. We have recently started selling cooked products such as biscuits, murmure and mathri and pickle at a few local stores. And ofcourse, there’s our gardening and nursery section (called Haryali) where our friends have been involved in different processes such as painting bottles, potting plants, preparing seeds and caring for plants.
We have also been making diyas every year, and have some very regular customers now -most of whom order our diyas from outside of Dehradun, and we courier the packages.
Some of our friends’ artwork was used by a boutique to design stoles, and these are beautiful too. All the currently available designs can be found on our Brand Arunima page.
Q) Wonderful Aparna! How can we purchase them?
Regarding purchase, The best way to purchase a product from Brand Arunima is to inbox us on our page. We are very quick to get back to you.
Q) A few details about your upcoming new assisted living project please..
Arunima is involved in a new upcoming Assisted Living Project, which is a parents’ initiative. Families, including myself, have benefited from Arunima’s services for years. One major challenge though is the fact that we have, from the beginning, operated out of rented buildings. Anyone who has set up work in a rented accommodation, knows the challenges involved. Throw in people with disabilities and the problems multiply.
The families have now got together, and collected funds to buy land and build a facility for approximately 25 adults with disabilities. These facility is open to people who are not currently enrolled with Arunima too, but might want to join this the residential project.
Very importantly, Arunima is the organization that will be managing the operations in this new Assisted Living Facility, which will be named Arunoday.
Q) A few details about the amazing achievements in special olympics and please share some training details too..
We were thrilled to be able to participate in the Special Olympics this year, first at the district level, and then at the state level. One of our ladies was selected for National Level games as well, and all of us, her family as well as the Arunima family, were extremely proud of her.
It was a new experience for our friends who participated, and we were blown away by how well they managed the new place, so many instructions, the HEAT – everything. Many of them won medals too, and even those who didn’t,came back a little grown up for the new adventure!
People may think we were constantly training our friends for them to have been so successful. However, we had no special training – just a consistently wholesome and healthy diet, plus daily exercises and many physical activities.
But now that we have participated and experienced what it can be like, we will structure the physical activities to make them more attuned to the competitive events offered in these events.
Q) What are the most common challenges you have faced while running Arunima and how you cope with them?
The biggest challenge we face is staff turnover, especially with the male staff. As mentioned earlier, we train our staff intensively for three months, before we consider them ready to take on responsibilities at Arunima. And when they start working, our friends form close relationships with them too. However, while our salaries are comparable with most other NGOs for people with special needs in Dehradun, they are still low for men who are looking to be eventual providers for their families. And if the promise of better remuneration comes along, most people will go. This is always a big blow for all of us -residents and staff alike,as one can well imagine.
As far as coping with this high turnover goes – we are doing a few things:
- Training all the staff to deal with emergency situations
- Building relationships with leaving staff so that they will return and help in an emergency
- Encouraging existing staff to do extra shifts but paying them overtime too
However, all of the above are only temporary, emergency measures and will not help in the long term. For this reason, after our most recent board meeting, we have decided to make staff salaries our fund raising focus. Hope people reading this interview can help connect us to potential donors who understand the importance of staff retention.
Q) Your advice to Autism parents on what are the three most important skills they should focus on?
All of us, family members of persons on the Autism Spectrum,and indeed, people with any sort of disability should keep our vision focused on three things:
- Independence, to the highest degree possible, in personal care.
2. A mode of communication that can be understood by a large number of people
3. If possible, building up an interest or skill that can be turned into a vocation later.
Q) Your advice to others planning to start an assisted living facility in India.
To others, planning to start assisted living facilities in India, I would say a few things:
1. Look at the models already available. You have the luxury of being able to see and replicate the best practices from already existing centers. Many of us, who were some of the pioneers, did not have this luxury available and had to learn many things the hard way.
2. Try your best to make the facility as close to home as possible. The world is moving away from “institutionalization”. India has joined the Assisted Living bandwagon very recently, but it does not mean we have to use methods that belong in the dark ages.
3. Be willing to learn and evolve all the time. Keep your residents at the center of all planning. Be alert to their needs and communication, as they will be the best guides as we strive to build great facilities.
Q) How do you manage to take into consideration the individual needs in the assisted living facility?
We believe strongly that one size does not fit all, and just as we are able to provide a variety of activity options at the training center, Arunima’s living set up also caters to individual needs. Some of our residents are very independent, and can manage their household with minimal support. They live with 1 or 2 other flat mates, and are joined at different times by one staff member, who’s job is more of a friend and counselor. These adults manage their grocery, cooking, and all other activities on their own, or with just as much support as is needed.
Other residents who have higher support needs, live in slightly bigger flats, that accommodate 4 residents. These flats will always have two staff on duty, supporting each resident as needed.
There are a few among us who don’t sit and worry about their problems but take on the hurdles head-on and come up with solutions that help many others. They restore our faith in humanity. Aparna, you belong to this category of people!
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