Sally Papciak

COVID-19 has affected most Americans, at least in some areas of lives. Adults with disabilities living in group homes rely on assistance in most, if not all, aspects of daily life. And so, the effect of COVID is insurmountable.

Individuals in a group home require between three and eight, or even more, trained professionals daily. Direct support professionals assist with grooming and hygiene, ensure safe and healthy meals, prompt individuals to interact with others appropriately, and help individuals work toward achieving goals. Among countless other tasks, the direct support professionals ensure a clean, safe environment for all residents.

Individuals with disabilities living in group homes often need a certified residential medication administration professional on staff. This professional assumes roles of DSP in addition to assuring medications are prepared and administered properly multiple times daily. Working closely with medical professionals, guardians and individuals, this role requires precision and patience.

Clinical professionals, maintenance, supervisors of staff, quality assurance, and others round off the team that work under the residential care umbrella. These professionals collaborate to ensure comfort, safety, care, and progress toward goals.

In addition to residential staff, each individual under care has a case manager (a social worker looking over all aspects of care). Most have a guardian, a primary care doctor, and a provider that specializes in medication management. Others have employment support, day programs, and other providers including occupational therapy, physical therapy, and mental health care. Some even attend school.

With so many professionals collaborating to provide quality care, we can understand how lonely life can be during COVID-19. Imagine, if you will, waking up — and the faces of friendly staff you have come to know and trust are covered with masks. Suddenly you cannot see their smiles.

If you are an individual with limited communication abilities, you may even rely on facial expressions more than words to assure you that you are safe. Even if you cannot read facial expressions, the sudden change with everyone wearing a mask in your world may be scary. Think of individuals who cannot differentiate between reality and fiction. In comics, often those who wear masks over the nose and mouth are the bad guys.

Now, your daily staff are scary. Likely you are anxious to go to school, work, or day program. Sorry, that is not available; those have been closed down. Of course, you likely do not understand that. All you know is that your scary staff that changed will not take you. Maybe you are now angry and scared. Certainly, you are nervous, anxious, or perhaps helpless. Since it is Wednesday, you know today is the day you get to see your parents. Imagine your confusion when it is time to visit, they are on a computer screen — two-dimensional people in glass.

With a rapid increase in the spread of the virus, many staff have become ill, or quarantined due to exposure. Many individuals rely on routine, and it is already chaos, but now the staff you trust are gone. No notice. No transition. They’ve just disappeared. With the high number of staff in these homes, the likelihood of exposure increases, staff often keep their distance. You feel alone.

Many of these individuals are developmentally impaired and are not capable of comprehending the situation, the use of masks, quarantine, and the excessive changes to the environment. With these elements, it is not surprising many individuals are suffering. Individuals who do not have the comprehension or language to express their feelings are likely to exhibit behavioral issues.

Quality staff are trained to identify indicators of behavioral changes. Their primary job is to focus on the individual under their care, their needs and the care and safety they are providing, while maintaining social distance and wearing a mask.

The one thing we can do to support these clients is to stay the course. Wear your masks, avoid public places, and otherwise follow quarantine protocols as developed by the CDC and our leaders.

The sooner we can get back to normal, the sooner individuals in our care can get back to feeling safe — getting back into their routine.

Sally Papciak of North Berwick is the clinical director at Ubuntu Care, providing residential support for adults with autism and learning disabilities. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine with a master’s degree in clinical social work, she has over 20 years of experience working with individuals with disabilities.

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