In face of COVID-19, work doesn't stop for caretakers of adults with disabilities

David Floyd • Apr 23, 2020 at 9:00 AM

Serving as a caretaker for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be an around-the-clock job.

At Core Services of Northeast Tennessee, the organization has employees working in eight-hour or 12-hour shifts day and night to serve adults at homes across the community, and while the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has shut down many facets of daily life, the need for those support services remains.

“Our population is very used to a routine,” said Susan Arwood, executive director of Core Services. “It’s really disruptive to them to have their whole routine changed around, and our employees have been awesome about helping them around that and finding activities they can do that don’t involve being around people.”

Busting boredom

Now, with less to do, Arwood said support workers try to get the people they care for out in the fresh air for a few hours a day, which could involve something as simple taking a nice walk.

Before the outbreak, adults in the program were used to congregating for activities, but caretakers are now keeping the two or three people living in each of the organization’s 21 houses isolated together in order to follow proper social distancing guidelines. Core Services has also been able to use technology to ensure adults in the program can stay in contact with each other.

At 9:15 a.m., a couple of Core Services’ employees hold a daily devotional, and at 2 p.m., the organization hosts a “hello” call where people can join by video conference to check in with their friends.

“It’s kind of chaotic, but it’s totally fun,” Arwood said.

About 23 of the 49 adults the organization cares for had jobs before the outbreak, a number that has since dropped to seven. The others are on leave for the time being, in part because some of them had a higher risk of serious illness stemming from their age or existing health issues.

Steve Cox, the CEO of Dawn of Hope, said his organization, which cares for more than 100 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, shut down its day program at its main center on March 24 as a precaution against the novel coronavirus.

But Dawn of Hope continues to maintain its 23 homes, which serve about 60% of the people in the program.

Like Core Services, the biggest challenge for staff at Dawn or Hope involves finding ways to deal with the isolation caused by self-quarantine.

The organization has created activities like baking and cooking contests between different houses to act as “boredom busters,” and staff are consistently developing new things to do.

“We’ve tried to make it as fun as we possibly can,” Cox said.

Protective measures

Vicky Hamaker is one of about 110 direct support professionals at Core Service. Before the virus shut down or complicated access to local services, employees were used to taking the adults they cared for to places like the mall, the supermarket or out to eat.

Now, it can be a challenge to find things to do.

“They’re used to getting out and going,” Hamaker said. “They’ll go get their shoes if they’re ready to go, and there’s really nowhere you can take them.”

As precautions against the novel coronavirus, Hamaker said caretakers at Core Services wear gloves and masks and take their own temperature and that of the people they care for on a daily basis.

Cox said Dawn of Hope employees are required to wear a mask when they’re working with the people they support. They also have gloves, but Cox noted that the organization is always looking for more supplies.

“You can’t have too much of that stuff right now,” he said.

Adapting to difficult times

Neither Core Services nor Dawn of Hope has laid off staff during the pandemic.

Arwood said Core Services probably has more staffing than it needs right now, but that’s allowed adults served under the program to have more one-on-one interactions with a caregiver.

An important part of its funding, Arwood said organizations like Core Services are also required to maintain 30 hours a week of community involvement for the people they care for, but that rule has been relaxed during the COVID-19 to allow for “homebound services.”

Additionally, Cox said he would like to see the state pursue more funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which providers like Dawn of Hope would pass on to their employees.

“By and large, the people that work as direct support professionals ... aren’t making a lot of money anyway, and that’s because we don’t have a lot to pay them,” Cox said. “The funding is just not that great for the work they do.”

Cox, who is on the board for an organization called Tennessee Community Organizations, which has been lobbying state officials for several weeks, estimated direct support professionals across Tennessee earn on average about $10 an hour. He would like to see additional money provided on a temporary basis to boost pay for those employees.

“What they do isn’t easy,” Cox said of Dawn of Hope’s direct service professionals and licensed practical nurses. “Some days it isn’t fun. But they keep coming back day after day anyway  because their passion for the work they do, and the love they have for the people we support is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

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