Joan and George have been friends since they first met in the 1970s, when they both lived at Belchertown State School. They moved out at the same time and, being good friends, they stayed in contact despite each living in different residential programs. What they really wanted was to live right next to each other. With some coordination, they found themselves living in side-by-side apartments. The landlord, recognizing their special friendship, agreed to add a door between the apartments, much like adjoining rooms in hotel, so they could move easily between their separate units. For many years it was a perfect solution.
MHA’s Megan Therrien met Joan and George in 2014 when she was assigned to provide outreach support to each of them. Megan helped them to live in the community by taking them to the store, doctor’s appointments and social events. She helped them manage their money, pay their bills and stay organized. Over several years, she developed a good working relationship and a fondness for them.
In time, advancing age and health issues meant Joan and George could not live independently any longer. The state Department of Developmental Services began looking for solutions so each could have their own needs met. But Megan realized a fundamental part of meeting their needs was for them to be together. Megan so enjoyed her regular interactions with Joan and George, she wondered whether she could provide the right opportunity.
She approached MHA and asked to explore the possibility of becoming a Shared Living provider. MHA’s Shared Living Program matches persons with developmental disabilities to individuals and families who welcome them to live in their home and experience everyday family and community life. Building caring relationships within a family and within the community is the essence of Shared Living.
There were detailed discussions about Megan’s role and how her background in outreach support could translate into success as a Shared Living provider. She certainly has had plenty of direct care experience as the mother of a young son, 5-year-old Ben. Megan went through each step of the formal process for becoming a Shared Living provider and her application was approved.
Of course, Joan and George were asked what they thought about living with Megan—and both loved it! Their story of friendship then took a new, deeper turn when Joan and George asked whether they might live together, as a couple. As it turned out, a house in their same neighborhood was being renovated by the landlord who owned Joan and George’s individual apartments (and installed that adjoining door). The 3-bedroom house had plenty of space for Megan, Ben, and Joan and George to share.
Before Joan and George started with Shared Living, while still living in their side by side apartments, they had a formal commitment ceremony. The Knights of Columbus and church members organized the ceremony with a service and a cake to commemorate the day. Joan and George have an album with many photos they enjoy sharing with others. Now they have their own room and live like a married couple, as part of a family that includes Megan and Ben, as well as Megan’s mother Tracy who provides respite care.
Importantly, Joan and George let Megan know the things they want to do and she helps make it so. One example was taking a vacation to the beach, as a family. The idea of family has been embraced especially by Megan’s son, who has “adopted” Joan and George as surrogate grandparents. Their bond is truly special. George and Ben like to play trucks together. Ben is a boy’s boy, but he’s very gentle with his housemates, especially Joanie. When they ride in the car together, he holds her hand. A favorite Saturday routine is going to Atkins Farm Store, where they know the lady at the pastry counter.
George likes to visit Nick’s Barber Shop regularly, as he’s done for decades. He wants to look sharp when he takes Joan out for date night, often for spaghetti suppers at the Knights of Columbus where he is a member. Megan makes sure he has pocket money when they go out. She also watches for potential health issues. One day Megan noticed Joan’s lips and tongue starting to swell, so she took her right away for medical care. Then she connected with the nurse who visits regularly so Joan’s care team was kept up to date. It turned out to be an interaction with a new medication she was taking; fortunately, it got noticed right away.
The loving, decades-long friendship between Joan and George is stronger than ever, and it continues to grow because Megan found a way for them to stay together in a family environment. They’re just like any elderly couple holding hands and sharing goodnight kisses. When they’re out together, you may not even realize these are folks with a disability. And their Shared Living family shows some of the many ways humans express love for each other.