Program Lowers Mental Retardation as Barrier to Helping Family Elders
Carbine, Peter, Docktor, Rose, Aging Today
"Are you all right, Grandma? Would you like a cup of tea?" These are the questions that Danyelle "Danny" McNeil will ask her grandmother, Laurette, if she's still in her bed when Danny checks on her in the morning. Danyelle does this before she leaves for school. "Danny is a godsend," Laurette said proudly. Danyelle is in her 20s and her grandmother is in her 70s; they live together in her grandmother's home. At a time when multigeneration families are not uncommon, this household may not seem unusual, but Danny is a young woman with disabilities and special needs. Moreover, as her grandmother experienced some of the expected difficulties associated with aging, Danny was trained through a special pilot program to assume a number of tasks that Laurette can no longer do well.
Just as it has with the general population, life pxpectancy for people with mental retardation has increased dramatically in the last century because of improved access to healthcare, as well as other significant social advances. The growing number of older adults wanting to stay in their own homes for as long as possible has resulted in significant increases in the demand for services at the same time that families have sought to increase in-home supports and services for family members with disabilities. As elders find themselves coping with their own aging process and experience diminished capacity, they commonly become less able to provide care for the individual with mental retardation.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," Laurette confided. Danyelle has been learning to pay monthly bills and she shows off the check register with great pride. "I did a little bit of laundry today," Danny beamed one day recently. Her grandmother stated proudly, "Now, she's much more comfortable putting on the oven and making cupcakes, or she'll easily cook up some scrambled eggs." She continued, "In the past, anything electrical would worry Danny, and she was afraid of touching it; today she's so much more confident and mature."
As a young woman with mental challenges, Danny is just finishing her high school years. She is able to read her grandmother's notes, and they are able to stay intouch through cell-phone calls. In the past she would not try to do things for herself, never mind doing things for her grandmother. But in 2003, Danny became one of a test group of 45. high-functioning clients of The Kennedy Center, a rehabilitation program located in Trumbull, Conn. "Now, she is so much more mature. I can see Danny someday when no one would have to do 100% for her," Laurette said. "Right now she's helping me, but in the future, she will be able to be serf-sufficient-able to take care of herself."
Getting children and grandchildren to assume responsibilities around the house is no easy task, but individuals with mental retardation and other special needs are generally not expected to achieve highlevel proficiency in these areas. Recently, a special caregivers' program, funded by the United Way of Eastern Fairfield County and the Southwestern Connecticut Agency on Aging, made it possible for The Kennedy Center to attempt to develop a reversal of roles through an innovative program that provides special training and supports for high-functioning individuals with mental retardation. These younger people (children and grandchildren) are now learning to care for themselves and to be much more independent as they learn to care for their aging relatives. No one was certain that this program would work, but the families involved, Kennedy Center staff and the pilot-program funders have been heartened by the initial results and future potential for the program's approach.
One parent, Joseph Oprendak, described his past difficulties in attempting to get his 36-year-old son, Michael, to help around the house. The Kennedy Center staff was able get Michael to learn to do tasks-and do them willingly. "Now he's very helpful; he does the laundry and the dishes," Joseph commented. …