Ellen Melnychuk worked at Michener Centre back when it was still a catch-all facility to shut away Albertans with disabilities large and small.
Philosophical changes in how people with disabilities should be treated in the latter half of the 20th century gave families more support to raise their high-needs children at home, and group homes sprang up to house adults who could live with staffing support and greater independence.
As attitudes have continued to evolve, so has the push to give persons with developmental disabilities as much independence as they can handle.
So when Ellen and husband Melvin’s four daughters reached adulthood and the couple became empty nesters, there was an opportunity to fill a void that meant Ellen getting another taste of work she enjoyed decades earlier.
The couple became proprietors through Catholic Social Services’ approved home program, renting out their basement to a 28-year-old woman with vision issues who found living on her own too tough. Twelve years on the couple are still involved, now with a second “client” and a strong feeling of fulfilment.
“There’s an awesome sense of achievement, of accomplishment in helping them reaching their goals. That’s great. It’s really interesting to see them make strides in where they are,” said Ellen.
The first tenant stayed six years — before moving across the street to stay with the Melnychuks’ daughter — and then Kristy Shantz moved in. The move marked a step toward independence for Shantz, 32.
After moving out of her childhood home and living with an aunt in Wetaskiwin, Shantz came to Red Deer in 2006 to take courses at the college. She was matched with a family, living among them on the main floor of their home.
A few years later, the opportunity came to move in with the Melnychuks. She jumped at it.
“Here I like it because I have my own space, I have my own kitchen, I have my own living room,” said Shantz.
“I come in, I can relax, I can eat what I want to eat — I don’t have someone saying you have to eat now. It’s kind of nice; I don’t feel pressure.”
Shantz works about 20 hours a week at Safeway and has an active social life, which includes time spent with Ellen on weekly girls’ nights and shopping trips. Though Kristy regularly talks to her parents, who live in Rimbey, and Ellen already has her four daughters, they both say something of a mother-daughter relationship has developed.
“My spot is not to take over her mom’s place,” said Ellen, “(but) I think sometimes you can be a little more open with people who aren’t your real mom. I’m sure my daughters would think the same.”
Shantz would like to be able to live on her own by 2016, but she acknowledges that there are still things she needs to learn before that can happen. Aside from further developing her culinary skills, she says learning how to better handle emotional challenges is key.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) offers courses for “proprietors” like Melnychuk to help them to support the development of their charges. Attending three courses per year is mandatory, and there are monthly home visits by CSS staff. But overall Ellen estimates her weekly time commitment for her role to be only six to 10 hours.
CSS is but one of many Central Alberta community living agencies to offer an approved home program. Its offering started in 1980 with a few families involved, and now there are 51, according to program co-ordinator Elin Barlem.
But Barlem said the agency has a difficult time finding proprietors and has a significant wait list of people with mild to moderate developmental disabilities wanting to access the program. In many cases, she said, the people involved want to come to Red Deer to take courses at the college and need the program to get some basic life skills before they can make it on their own.
“(The individual’s) parents, they see the families, they see there’s a mom and dad, that kind of stuff. So all of a sudden their heart is a little bit at ease. The individual is saying ‘I live with adults. They’re not mom and dad, they can’t tell me what to do.’ This is good stuff — it meets all needs,” said Barlem.
She said the process of matching individuals with homes is rigorous and very nearly every one she has arranged over the last 12 years has worked out. One individual just moved out after 28 years in a home; others can make it on their own after that many months.
Proprietors receive compensation for opening up their home, with the amount provided dependent on the degree of support required by the client. The clients also pay room and board — the standard amount is $650 per month — which entitles them to three meals a day and the use of laundry facilities.
Prospective proprietors go through a screening process and must keep their homes up to a certain standard, but beyond being 18 or older, there are few requirements. Clients can live simply as another resident within a family’s home, as a roommate in a house or apartment, or in a self-contained suite.
Shantz’s suite, filled with everything Coca-Cola — from calendars and lamps to a decorative telephone and a few actual bottles of the stuff — is all the rage among her friends, who tell her they would love to live there, too. She says there are people out there who need more help than her, but there are no such basement suites available for them in Red Deer.
Another relatively-new initiative that could see fewer people with developmental disabilities end up in traditional group homes in the future is family managed service, which allows individuals or families to directly hire staff or a service provider to supply care from a list approved by the provincial Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) program. The individuals/families are then provided with funds to hire that support. Advocates say it allows for more flexibility and control.