Joan Kelvey and George Gagnon have been together since they first met in the 1970s when they both lived at Belchertown State School. Once they left, they continued to stay in touch, despite each living in different residential programs. They discussed moving in with each other, and with some coordination; they found themselves living in side-by-side apartments. Their landlord recognized their special friendship and agreed to add a door between the apartments, like adjoining rooms in a hotel, so that they could move easily between their separate units. Soon after, Joan and George held a formal commitment ceremony organized by The Knights of Columbus and local church members to commemorate the day. For many years this was a perfect solution.

However, advancing age and health problems made it no longer possible for Joan and George to live independently. The Department of Developmental Services (DDS) began looking for solutions. MHA’s Megan Therrien met Joan and George in 2014 when she was assigned to provide outreach support to each of them.  When she first met them, there was an instant connection.  Megan assisted the couple 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 the years, Megan had grown close with the couple. They were there with Megan when she was pregnant with her son, Ben, and have become his surrogate grandparents.  It wasn’t long until Megan wondered if there was a more permanent solution for Joan and George.

Megan realized a fundamental part of meeting their needs was for Joan and George to be together. Megan enjoyed her regular interactions with the couple, but 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 carefully matches persons with developmental disabilities to individuals and families who have room in their warm and welcoming homes to provide stability and a long-term solution. “People who are cared for by DDS, there is a lot of come and go in their lives. They may have the same staff for only one, two or even five years, but then leave for other opportunities, and then the person has to adjust to a whole new group. But for them [Joan and George] to be part of Shared Living, it would provide them with more stability and a long-term plan.”

Megan had a strong case as a suitable Shared Living provider with her background in outreach support and invaluable experience as a mother of Ben. Megan knew she was ready for this life-altering change.  After careful evaluation and approval from Joan and George, Megan was approved.

The newly formed family’s story took a deeper turn when Joan and George asked if they could live in the same room 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, Joan and George to share, and they would soon move into the home.  Now they have their own room and live like a married couple.

With the assistance of Megan, Joan and George live normal lives and get around pretty regularly. They go on beach trips as a family, eat at restaurants and dance together at home.  “I love the moments when they start dancing, especially if I can get George to dance who is shy. But when he does, he starts moving around and pointing his index fingers up in the air. They love dancing to oldies, but Joanie will dance to anything; she is a musical creature.”

George regularly visits Nick’s Barber Shop in Chicopee as he’s done for decades. Every day, he walks over to the barbershop to get Joan lollipops, talk to the owner and maybe grab a haircut when he wants to take Joan out for a date night. Being in close proximity to the barbershop he grew up with and making regular visits has helped make George’s Shared Living transition process easier.

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. Megan feels blessed that Joan and George are in her life and admires their relationship. “They are a special couple. They have such a deep connection and they accept each other for who they are. Their love and support for one another is unique. They are the most gentle and kind people; when you meet them they accept you like family. They’ve helped me figure out what is really important and to enjoy the little things in life.”

Megan’s mother, Tracy Flynn, who is also MHA’s Shared Living Director, said the couple’s relationship “displays the true meaning of partnership and unconditional love. They support each other without effort. They can sit in silence and be comfortable with that, and they can sing and dance for hours together, but whatever they are doing, they are happy just being with each other. The love they have for each other is immeasurable.”

Megan loves being a Shared Living provider for Joan and George and wants others to consider becoming a provider. Megan advises those interested in becoming Shared Living providers to remember that they are welcoming them into their lives. “It is not just a job; you are bringing this person into your life and giving them the life and care they deserve. It takes a little time to get used to this lifestyle. There needs to be a mutual understanding and commitment to each other.”

Shared Living is an alternative to a 24-hour group home for adults receiving services through the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS). Shared Living providers welcome an individual into their stable and caring home environment while providing an appropriate level of care and receiving a tax-free income. Providers include single parents, retirees, widows/widowers – anyone with room in their heart and home to share all that life has to offer. In many cases, the individual supported through Shared Living becomes a permanent addition to a family. In other cases, where the individual has a goal to live independently, the provider may serve as a roommate and role model to help them learn the skills needed for independent living.