Rick Stockrahm works as a temporary assistant in an assisted outpatient flat-sharing community for people with disabilities. During my visit to the flat in Berlin-Lichtenberg, the teacher-in-training talks about his daily work.
“You have to be aware that you’re working in a private environment.”
It’s still quiet in the apartment. “Except for our two pensioners, everyone is at work,” explains Rick Stockrahm. The 27-year-old teacher-in-training works as a temporary assistant in an assisted outpatient flat-sharing community in Berlin-Lichtenberg for people with disabilities. He is preparing the daily coffee break in the afternoon. “When the residents come home from work, they can relax while having coffee and cake,” says Rick.
Today it’s very warm, so there’s ice cream instead of cake. Seven residents live in the flat — three women and four men, aged from their early thirties to mid sixties. All have physical or mental disabilities. The assisted community is run by Stephanus gGmbH, a non-profit organization of the Berlin/Brandenburg-based Protestant Stephanus Foundation. Its division in Pankow-Lichtenberg alone has ten outpatient flat-sharing communities. “Outpatient care means that we are not there around the clock, but that the supervision time is between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day. At night, the residents are alone. The need for care is not high and can be covered by external service providers,” explains the flat’s manager, Samira Küsel. She uses the quiet to talk about life and work in the shared flat, while Rick takes care of the coffee. “Our main task is to support the residents in their independence and to preserve it as much as possible, especially the independence of the older ones.” Being there to support them means assisting the residents to live as self-determined as possible.
This can be seen, for example, in the choice of jobs: Five residents work in workshops for people with disabilities. They get to work with transport services, or they drive there independently. They have chosen their own workplace. One of the residents is about to change jobs: “She would like to do something new. We attended an open day in another workshop together. She liked the creative area there very much. We made contact, now she’ll have an interview soon, then an internship and, if everything goes well, she’ll change jobs.”
In the morning the administration, in the afternoon the supervision.
The work day in the shared flat is clearly structured. Küsel continues: “In the morning, when the residents are at work, we take care of the administration. Contact with the authorities and legal caretakers is maintained, appointments are made with the driving services and the nursing wards, and appointments are made with doctors. We also plan excursions and activities,” she explains.
From the early afternoon onwards, the residents come back from work. Then the main supervision time begins while having coffee and cake. “If the residents would like to report on their working day or have any other need to speak, this is the right setting.” It is an offer that flat members can accept, but without obligation. “Some might prefer to rest from work and go to their rooms. The residents generally decide for themselves whether they want to take part in activities and how they want to organize their day.”
Otherwise, appointments are scheduled for the afternoon: “We accompany the residents to doctor’s appointments, go shopping together or do something, for example eat ice cream.” Some activities have to be planned well in advance in view of the many appointments. At 6 p.m. the residents and staff have dinner together, in which participation is also voluntary.
The residents’ meeting as a discussion forum
Only the residents’ meeting every Monday is obligatory. At that time, appointments are made together, and the week and weekend are planned. “If someone wants to do an excursion, it will be discussed at the meeting.” Also a common vacation is sometimes suggested. “This year we spent a few nice days in Heringsdorf at the Baltic Sea, that was a fantastic trip, very harmonious.” The residents’ meeting is also the forum for worries and conflicts, because as in any flat-sharing community, there can be a crisis. “We then moderate the discussion and look together for a solution to the conflict. It is important that each person can present his or her concerns and views. We then mediate.”
As in any other flat-sharing community, the residents are together in charge of the household as far as possible. Who-does-what is discussed together and recorded on a plan in the kitchen. The meal plan, which is determined in the plenum on Mondays, also hangs there. The flat members and employees take care of the shopping and preparation of the meals together.
Castings for new residents as in any other shared flat
The apartment in which the community lives is on the ground floor of an ordinary apartment building and belongs to one of the state-owned Berlin housing associations. Before the opening of the shared flat in 1997, it was modified to meet the needs of future residents. Everything is barrier-free, and the rooms of residents with restricted mobility are larger, in keeping with legal regulations. All members pay the rent from their income, which is calculated from the size of the rooms. Four of today’s residents have been living in the flat from the very beginning, which is 22 years: “The ‘old hands’, as they call themselves, keep expressing the desire to stay here.” Two other residents have been living here for eleven and for eight years, one has only recently arrived. “If someone wants to move in, they come visit to get to know each other. When all residents can imagine living together, the interested person comes to sleep here one night. Only then is it decided whether he or she will move in or not.”
In addition to Rick, another temporary assistant works in the flat. The two support the professional staff, especially in the afternoon and evening hours and on weekends. In addition, temporary assistants often ensure that excursions can take place. Since three people with walking disabilities live in the flat, at least two employees must be present on excursions.
When residents come home
Gradually all residents are returning from work. They are delighted about my visit, for which they have declared their agreement in advance. Stefan* is the flat’s spokesman. He meets regularly with the speakers of the other shared flats in Pankow and Lichtenberg to exchange ideas. Stefan invites us to his room and proudly presents his keyboard. “I like making music,” he announces and hits the keys. Max, his roommate, joins in with an ice cream sundae. He is the artist in the community, with his pictures hanging everywhere. He also paints in the workshop where he works.
Joachim and Rita live as a couple in the flat, and they are engaged. In order to give them more space for themselves and their relationship, a separate living area was set up with the installation of an intermediate door. “They are still connected to the flat, but can live as a couple as independently as possible,” explains Küsel. Joachim and Rita happily present their living spaces.
Pensioner Rüdiger sits at the kitchen table and stamps his address on paper labels. “Rüdiger has outsourced his office here,” says Rick while winking at him. Rüdiger smiles at him. Soon he runs out of stamping ink and slowly goes into his room with his rollator to get more ink. Rick helps him fill it.
Search for meaningful employment
Then Rick sits outside onto the terrace. A good opportunity to talk to him about his job. Since 2017, Rick has been working part-time as a temporary assistant at the Stephanus Foundation. Initially he worked in two shared flats, then in three, and now only in this one.
Before his temporary job, Rick had no contact with people with disabilities, with the exception of a two-week internship at a special needs school. He studies history and sports education at the Humboldt University of Berlin — not curative or special education.
So how did it happen that Rick applied as a temporary assistant in the shared flat? “I worked for a fashion chain for two years and as a waiter in a café. But that wasn’t much fun for me and didn’t open up any prospects for the future. That’s why I wanted to do something more meaningful.” He found the job advertisement of Stephanus gGmbH by chance. “Actually, they were looking for a temporary student assistant in the field of social work, special education or something similar. I was excited to do something new. I also found the position a useful addition to my studies. That’s why I simply tried my luck.”
Rick still remembers well the application procedure. First, he spoke with the shared flat’s management, then he was invited to the introduction interview in the flat. Rick got to know the residents and he answered their questions. “If they couldn’t have imagined me working in their shared flat, I wouldn’t have been taken.”
In view of the fact that the employees move around in the private rooms of the residents, it is very important that everyone gets along well. This is another aspect of his work: respect for privacy. “You have to be aware that you are working in a private environment.” This became clear to Rick during an argument with a resident: “He told me very clearly that I only work here, but he lives in the flat. That’s what I have to be aware of.”
It is therefore very important to build up and maintain distance. “It is in principle important to knock on the residents’ door and wait to see whether we are allowed to get in.” It is also important to keep distance between people. “Kissing, for example, is a border. You can say ‘No, I don’t want that’. But a hug as a greeting or when someone is sad, that’s fine, of course.” The best way to keep distance is honesty and fairness: to say honestly, directly and immediately what bothers you. “Many who have no contact with people with disabilities believe that they must be particularly kind to them. That this is not necessary, and can be inappropriate, one notices in the course of the time.”
Rick perceives his work as versatile and responsible. “Many people think that support means accompanying people from A to B. But that’s not all. A lot happens on the side in conversations.” It is important to teach residents how to deal safely with certain matters. “We explain, for example, the dangers of alcohol.”
There is additional support from advice centers. “For many areas we have contact persons, for example a colleague from another shared flat leads the working group ‘Sexuality and Love’. These needs do not disappear with people with disabilities. But we also have to clarify this.” It is important to regard each person as an individual. “It is not only about preserving the abilities and competences of the residents, but also about expanding them.”
Rick learned a lot about himself
In general, Rick has learned a lot since he started working in the shared flat, including about himself. “The contact with the residents has become better and better, and I myself have become much more experienced in dealing with them. In conversations at university I sometimes notice that many people don’t even know how contact with people with disabilities is, so that they are afraid of doing something wrong.” If Rick himself doesn’t know what to do, he can address problems or worries at the weekly team meeting. The nine employees also receive support from qualified supervision by a therapist. “There I can expand on myself as well as on the residents.”
Rick has not yet decided whether he will work at a secondary or in a special school after graduating. “I have become more patient and relaxed, take a lot with humor. All this, I think, is also important in school.” He has also learned to take on different perspectives: “When crossing a street with a traffic light, the rule is: ‘You can walk when it’s green, stop when it’s red’. During a recent excursion, a resident stopped in the middle of the street because the traffic light jumped to red. At first you agree with him, but of course he can’t stop there. You’ll learn to think your way into the residents in the course of time.”
Rick pays more attention than he did before as to how he expresses facts and how they might come across. “Communicating simply and understandably will also be important for me later in class.”
Organizational skills are required
To combine his studies with about 20 hours of work per week requires organizational skills from Rick: “I always try to spread my seminars and lectures over one or two days, which of course is not possible every semester.” The weekend services, on which he can work full-time for two days, are an advantage. In his spare time, Rick has to eliminate some things. “For example, I’m not in a sports club. But the evenings are free, and then there is still enough time. You have to structure the day, that’s very important.”
In the background dishes are clattering. It is 6 p.m., dinner time. Today Stefan helps with the table setting. Actually this is Lisa’s exercise, but she’s on holiday right now. Rick sits down with the residents. Appointments are made while eating salad and bread. Julia wants to make an appointment next week and asks Samira Küsel about a possible time window. Plans are made together to go to the cinema soon in order to see the remake of the “Lion King.” After dinner, the table is cleared together. At 8 p.m. Rick’s working day is over.
*The names of the residents have been changed to protect their privacy.