Christmas carols used to bring Dorothy Corder to tears.
She would dread the holidays because she had no visitors and no place to go. Her support workers would bring her presents in an attempt to cheer her up.
Holidays are a lot different now that she has a family to celebrate with.
Dorothy has the mental capacity of a six-year-old. In 2000, she left the Michener Centre in Red Deer and moved to St. Albert under the care of the Lo-Se-Ca Foundation. Her family members moved away and relinquished guardianship so she was assigned a public guardian to take care of her medical and legal needs.
A handful of years later, Dorothy has now been informally adopted by a new family. Judy and Henry Burdzy, a couple that lives down the street from her in Akinsdale, became her private guardians in 2008.
“At the time we probably didn’t know what we were getting into. All I know is that I loved her,” said “mom” Judy.
Hitting it off
Dorothy met the Burdzys through their daughter Erica. When Erica was hired on as a financial assistant at Lo-Se-Ca in 2007, she wanted to know more about the organization so she worked a couple of shifts in the group homes.
Erica and Dorothy hit it off, so much so that Erica brought Dorothy home to her parents.
It took six months to complete the paperwork and the court process for the Burdzys to be become her legal guardians. Erica is Dorothy’s alternate guardian.
“It’s a great responsibility and we don’t take it lightly. I would fight until my death to keep her if something were to happen,” said Judy.
Private guardianship sought by non-family members is relatively unheard of, say Lo-Se-Ca support workers Jill Thomson and Sarah Jane Klein.
“When I found out Dorothy was adopted, it was unbelievable because she had no one before,” said Thomson, who was also one of Dorothy’s support workers at Michener.
Dorothy lives with a roommate in a house and receives 24/7 care. She attends a seniors day program Monday to Friday. She comes over for dinner at the Burdzy house on Thursdays and Sundays and spends weekends at their lake cabin with them and their extended family.
Dorothy has her own room at the Burdzy house. She points to photos on the wall of new babies in the family – she loves children. Her bureau drawers are stuffed with new clothes and snacks.
Although she left Michener years ago, Dorothy still carries it with her in the form of institutional behaviours, explained her support workers.
She talks loudly to be heard above the rest, she has to be the first one to eat and she carries around shoelaces – also known as “soothies” – part of self-stimulatory behaviour.
“Those kinds of behaviours don’t just disappear,” said Klein, noting that some behaviours have stopped altogether since she has been living in community-care.
Now she is happier and independent, she added.
“She is a different woman. Now she’s a family unit.”
The Burdzy family can no longer imagine life without Dorothy.
“We didn’t know the impact she would have on our entire family,” said Erica. “People will say to us, ‘Oh what a great thing you’ve done, you changed a life so much.’ But she’s changed our lives, our entire family. She brings everyone together.”
“I lie awake at night worrying about her,” admitted Judy. “What if she lives longer than us? I can’t stand the thought of her not being loved.”