PIONEER VALLEY — Interested in earning additional income and able to accommodate another resident in your living space? The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) is expanding its Shared Living program, for individuals served by the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, to more families willing to open their home environment to them.
More providers, who are paid a tax-free stipend between $30,000 to $45,000 annually, are being sought by MHA in Hampden County.
“Shared Living allows much more flexibility for individuals who don’t need the 24-hour, seven-day-a week care that a group home provides, but are much more suited to a more independent, community-based living situation,” said Kimberley Lee, MHA’s vice president of Resource Development and Branding. “We are seeing people now who are much more appropriate for shared living than for a traditional group-home environment.”
Tara Kurtz-Boucher, MHA’s vice president of Integration and Community Living, said the program offers interested providers the opportunity to earn money while working from home at a time when many individuals have sought such alternative employment during the pandemic. She said the program, which is expanding to include individuals with brain injury, gives participants the extra support that allows them to live a more independent and private lifestyle than in a group home with three or four residents.
She added that much planning and preparation goes into pairing the two to ensure a “good match.”
“Before any move, we have multiple visits with an identified provider to make sure that there is chemistry, that the two get along. So they will do dinners, and sometimes there is an overnight, to get acclimated to the new home, and then there is the move,” Kurtz-Boucher said. “It takes a few months while they get to know each other and make sure this is a good match.”
She said both the client’s and the provider’s interests are taken into account in making a match.
“We might have, for example, someone who lives in a two-bedroom apartment and lives in the downtown area,” she said. “We would find an individual who wants to take the bus independently and has connections in that area. It is very individualized, which makes it fun when it works, but it can take time to find the right provider, so the more providers we have to choose from, the more quickly we can place the referral.”
She said expectations of providers include “making sure the person they care for makes all their doctors’ appointments, engages in any social activities they feel are important, and, since most work or attend a day program, the provider serves as a liaison to that program to make sure everything is going well,” Kurtz-Boucher explained. “Providers also have to be willing to be part of a team. This is not unilateral, meaning you have this individual and you make all of their decisions; you have to work with your MHA team as well as whatever the state funder is to make decisions with the person’s best interests in mind.”
Tracy Flynn is program supervisor and case manager for MHA’s Shared Living program and works directly with the providers and participants. She highlighted other requirements of providers and benefits that include paid vacation.
“Providers are also expected to keep their home neat and orderly; work on the goals that the individuals have, as everyone has a goal they want to achieve; and they do track medication,” Flynn said. “Providers don’t have to be medication-certified, but they do need to watch the individual prepare their meds, or they give them their meds.”
Flynn conducts monthly home visits to, among other things, make sure the participant is safe and happy and ensure new providers are connected to any needed training required by DDS, such as CPR, first aid, and observable signs and symptoms of illness.
MHA Shared Living providers, who are often willing to share their experiences with newcomers, range from single moms to empty nesters to former foster-care parents, as well as senior citizens and individuals who serve as key male role models.
Kurtz-Boucher and Flynn have matched two candidates with new families in the last three months. Flynn said close bonds often develop between participant and provider.
“One of the ladies in Shared Living used to be in a group home, was non-verbal, and had some anxieties,” Flynn said. “She was placed five years ago with a woman as her Shared Living provider, and to see the participant now, she is so relaxed and pleasant and engages in so many activities on her own. You can just see the calm in her face and her actions. She has developed a relationship with the provider, who is wonderful to her.”
Lee said she hopes, “when people read about our Shared Living program, that they will think about the room in their homes and the room in their hearts to really bring someone into their life and become a Shared Living provider. It can be long-term, it can be short-term, it can be respite. It can be all of those things, but most certainly, it can be life-changing.”
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