Coronavirus Presents Unique Concerns for those with Developmental Disabilities

Over 300 homemade masks have been donated to LRCS from local community members to help combat the spread and protect employees from COVID-19 while they continue to work to support individuals with developmental disabilities.

LRCS has a proud 45-year history of providing programs and services designed to serve many of the most vulnerable people in the Lakes Region. Since the closing of the Laconia State School in 1991, the agency has been at the forefront of offering people with intellectual and developmental disabilities community-centered supports and services that promote inclusion and improve quality of life.

This nonprofit social service agency is a state designated Area Agency serving adults with developmental disabilities and acquired brain disorders and their families residing in Lakes Region communities. Across NH more than 10,000 people and their families depend on the safety net of Area Agency programs for people with developmental disabilities. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak is fraying this net. While LRCS has faced many challenges over its years of carrying out a complex and comprehensive human service mission, its work culture has always found creative and flexible solutions working alongside families to best serve its consumers and employees.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented and unique worries for the population of people with intellectual disabilities. “So many of the strategies used to mitigate the crisis fly in the face of the support system that this diverse population has relied on. The call for social-isolation, major disruptions to routines, higher risk for people with compromised health issues, coupled with the need for hands-on everyday self-care, makes this situation incredibly challenging, anxious and dangerous,” stated Rebecca Bryant, President & CEO. “At LRCS we are working all hands-on deck 24/7 to keep everyone safe.  Along with our partners at the state and local level and following CDC guidelines, we are doing our very best to advocate, communicate and update protocols and services addressing the needs and fears of individuals and families, our employees, and the communities we serve.”

Like so many businesses adhering to social distancing, LRCS has either closed or created online alternatives for programs and functions that involve face-to-face meetings and gatherings. While most of the individuals with developmental disabilities receiving LRCS services live at home, others are supported in independent living arrangements. And those with higher end needs requiring 24/7 care, live in a variety of LRCS owned residential homes. All these living arrangements present their own unique challenges as does the circumstances of each individual and their care givers.

“This is a diverse community and there is no one size fits all, but we know that change in routine creates distress for many people with intellectual disabilities and Autism. Those who work or volunteer and are supported by Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), feel the loss of community and don’t understand why their lives have changed. COVID threatens not only their health but their daily independence. As a result, we are seeing behavioral and health issues causing even more stress for vulnerable people and families” commented Wendy Robb, Director of LRCS StaffWorks.”

Although supported community jobs and volunteer opportunities for adults and LRCS businesses employing individuals are shut down, DSPs are providing in-home activities and taking individuals outside for healthy activities such as walks, hikes, and fishing. “We are doing what we can to alleviate some of the stress and worry. Families are afraid of getting sick and being unable to care for their loved ones and just petrified of what would happen if their family member had to be hospitalized, alone, with this virus,” stated Robb.

Those who reside in LRCS residential homes are often the most severely disabled requiring 24/7 care. Many are older with complex medical conditions including pulmonary illnesses such as asthma, COPD and bouts of aspiration pneumonia. Others are living with heart failure and diabetes-conditions that don’t allow their bodies to easily fight infections. And those who are nonverbal are unable to clearly communicate how they are feeling.

LRCS residential homes are set-up as group living arrangements to accommodate wheelchairs and a variety of specialized adaptive supports but are not designed to isolate people. “People live in close quarters, sharing bathrooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. All require hands-on personal care. We work hard to minimize the risk of infection, stated Lisa Clark, Director of Nursing. We follow multiple safety protocols, have well trained staff and personal protective equipment. But we can’t avoid direct personal contact as our residents need others help with daily self-care, medication, cleaning, shopping, cooking, and transportation.”

This crisis comes during a prolonged workforce shortage for direct care givers. Although most DSPs are dedicated to their work-gratified by making a difference in people’s lives, many who remain on the job face their own difficulties. COVID-19 has closed schools and day care facilities, leaving some staff no longer able to work. Others are concerned about their own exposure, as keeping 6 feet apart is not an option. The agency has had over 40 employees file for unemployment due to this crisis.

LRCS HR is striving daily to keep this valued and vital workforce employed. DSPs are receiving a $1 an hour pay increase through May 4; new employees are offered a sign on bonus and current employees are eligible for a referral bonus for bringing in new employees. The HR team is counseling employees to find flexible work arrangements that fit their personal situations. DSPs are being cross trained to work in other programs to avoid furloughs and the employee assistance program has been extended to help with financial strains. Recently the agency announced the availability of hotel accommodations for employees who have COVID-19 exposure in their homes. “We know how important our workforce is for the well-being of those we serve. We are hiring, training, counseling and finding solutions to keep the safety net intact,” commented Joleen Welford, HR Director of Employee Relations.

LRCS has long been a central community partner in the Lakes Region, with strong collaborations and partnerships. “The strength of the Lakes Region community has never been so evident as it is now, there is an incredible spirit that we will get us through this together. As difficult as this crisis is, it has showcased the amazing generosity and caring nature of the Lakes Region community,” added Bryant.