The past year hasn’t quite offered up the romantic opportunities we may have been hoping for – with the minor issue of a global pandemic somewhat getting in the way – but that hasn’t stopped love from being in the air.
In fact, at dates-n-mates – Scotland’s national dating and friendship agency for adults with learning disabilities – quite the opposite is true.
It wasn’t straightforward for anyone to adapt when the full effects of the pandemic began to be felt in Scotland last year, but the team at dates-n-mates was determined to make sure their members still had opportunities to nurture their friendships and relationships.
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“We know that, compared with others, adults with learning disabilities are always particularly at risk of loneliness and social isolation – with all the negative health implications that brings – and the Covid restrictions over the past year have left people worried, confused and lonely”, dates-n-mates Project Lead Lesley Miller explained.
“In ‘normal’ times, dates-n-mates provides a wide range of social activities for adults with learning disabilities – meals out, nights at the pub, clubbing – the same as everyone else.
“When the pandemic started, we wanted to make sure dates-n-mates members still had opportunities to keep in touch with people and continue to make new friendships and close personal relationships. So, we started a regular programme of online activities over video and supported as many people as possible to join in.
The online activities have ranged from coffee and a chat to games, karaoke, mix-n-mingles and even dancing – with workshops on ‘safe surfing’ also provided.
And the efforts of the dates-n-mates team have not been in vain.
Kenny and Karoline met in September 2019
Glasgow members Kenny Murphy and Karoline Carmichael are getting ready to celebrate their one-year relationship anniversary, after meeting at a dates-n-mates event that took place before lockdown.
Apart from seeing each other for a 10-minute outdoor visit shortly before Christmas, the pair say they kept their relationship strong throughout lockdown thanks to the wealth of online events and activities put on by dates-n-mates.
“Before Karoline came along, I didn’t even know what zoom was”, Kenny said. “But now for me to put myself up for cohosting dates-n-mates’ events… me getting that opportunity is really thanks to Karoline. I know its hard to believe but she kept saying ‘Kenny, come on zoom’. So, I did!”
Kenny, 29, and Karoline, 36, first met in September 2019 at a blind date show in Paisley. Their first date was three months later.
“It was at Glasgow Quay and from that point on I thought to myself, I am not going to take no for an answer…” Kenny explained. “She is just so kind.”
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They had only been on two dates before lockdown came into force, but the couple were determined to make it work.
When asked whether lockdown had been difficult, Karoline replied: “So difficult. I just miss Kenny a lot. I didn’t know what to expect.”
She added: “I can’t wait to see Kenny again.”
And both Kenny and Karoline agreed that they would have struggled to cope with the challenges of the pandemic without the other’s support.
Kenny said: “I sit myself every day thinking thank goodness I got with Karoline when I did because if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have coped the same with the pandemic as I have. I really don’t.” Karoline agreed: “Yeah, definitely the same.”
Like everyone, this happy couple is looking forward to lockdown coming to an end, with dinners out and trips to the football on the cards – and maybe even a wedding.
Mark and Chloe got engaged in May 2019
Fellow dates-n-mates members Mark Hinton and Chloe Taylor, started going out in December 2018, got engaged in May 2019, and have loved the various online events during the pandemic.
“I can’t see him and hug him. It has been very difficult. I miss him madly. I want to hug him. It is not the same without him”, Chloe, 24, explained.
“We have a really strong relationship and we have been keeping each other safe. It is really hard for both of us. I really miss holding hands. We went for a walk in the summer, and I had to be two metres away from him. I didn’t like that.
“I will give him a big hug and have a tear in my eye when I see him again.”
Although Chloe had been a dates-n-mates member for a good few years, Mark only joined during lockdown.
For Mark, 24, the online coffee chats have been a highlight – the main allure of course being he gets to see his fiancée at them.
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“I like that I can see Chloe”, he said. “But I can’t cuddle her and go for a walk. I miss all the activities. It has been very hard for me, you know? We still face time.”
When asked what he wanted to do at the end of lockdown, Mark added: “I want to get back to Club Late and Live Gigs and go out for dinner. I just wish I could see her.”
‘Club Late’ is the popular monthly and now greatly-missed event for adults with any disabilities, including brain injuries, learning disabilities, Asperger’s, autism and Down’s syndrome.
The event would host live DJs including Garry Spence, George Bowie and Cassie from Clyde One, as well as local talent, but unfortunately had to close earlier in the year due to the pandemic.
Dates-n-mates also runs ‘Club Live’ in conjunction with charity Me 2 Club, showcasing live local bands.
Both calendar fixtures are hugely popular with the younger members of dates-n-mates, and are hoped to return later in the year.
Lesley Miller added: “The feedback from members has been wonderful – they’ve loved it. It has helped them keep in touch with one another and provided a fun, friendly distraction from the doom and gloom of the lockdowns. And because all four dates-n-mates branches have joined in, people are meeting new friends from other parts of Scotland. We even have a few new long-distance romances going on.
“We are all looking forward to the time when we can meet up in person again, but until then dates-n-mates will continue to support our members’ mental health and wellbeing by providing opportunities for fun and social interaction online.”