COUNTRYSIDE – Remembering what it was like dropping off her daughter at college, Marcy Minshall can relate when a mom asks if her son has his favorite granola bars.
Marie Cevelicek’s son, Dennis, is moving away from home for the first time. Dennis Cevelicek, 38, is mentally challenged and a client at Helping Hand, a nonprofit that serves adults and children with disabilities. Last week, he moved into a house in Willow Springs operated by Helping Hand, where he’s living with four other clients.
"I was worried that if something happened to me, what [was] going to happen to Dennis?" Marie Cevelicek said.
For the first few days after Dennis Cevelicek moved into his new home, Marie Cevelicek received regular phone calls from Minshall, a member of Helping Hand's staff. One mom checking up on another.
"This transition is life-changing,” said Julie Hautamaki, Helping Hand’s chief clinical officer. “[Parents] come in and know that their lives are changing, that their health is declining, and they know that they need to make a change so that their child, no matter what age they are, has a placement in one of our [facilities]."
The Countryside-based nonprofit, which opened in 1955, is used to finding homes for its clients, but never before has it had to find spots for so many people. Helping Hand’s clients – and just as importantly, their parents – are getting older, and that means they’re in need of a different kind of help.
"It's definitely a new thing in the last couple of years where we've seen so many people lose their parents,” Hautamaki said. “And we've lost some clients, too, from aging.”
Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is projected to be older than 65 by 2030, compared to 12.4 percent in 2000, according to the Administration on Aging’s website.
More urgently, in 2011, a federal settlement designed to bring Illinois in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act expanded residential services to 21,000 people who were on a waiting list. Some of them are seeking housing through Helping Hand, whose wait was at 40 before it received another stack of referrals last month, bringing it to 60.
"Those are all people who need placement now,” Hautamaki said. “We can't even begin to address that. We're trying.”
Last year, Helping Hand hired Minshall, a social worker and former director of assisted living at Plymouth Place, as its new residential developer to help the organization develop a plan to serve its aging client base.
In addition to providing activities at a slower pace for older clients (part of a program tactfully titled the Leisure Exploration Club), the organization is trying to get clients into new homes before their parents pass away or become unable to care for them, if possible. That includes making sure parents like Marie Cevelicek understand that their kids will be OK once they move out.
"We do the transitions very slowly, so when that day comes, the client already knows his neighbors,” Minshall said. "By the time [a client] moves in, the room is completely set up … It says home. And that's very important."
In addition to calling his mom, Minshall checked in on Dennis Cevelicek during the first few days in his new home.
"Her house is empty [now],” Minshall said. “ … We need to help her know that we're going to take care of him, but that she's still a huge, important part of his life."
One of Dennis Cevelicek’s new housemates is Betsy White, 50, who recently moved into the house after living with her sister for about 18 months after their mom died. During the day, White plays sports, sings in the choir and participates in other activities at Helping Hand’s main facility. But she also enjoys being at her new home.
"There's a lot of people and we go on a lot of outings,” White said.
Like White, Jean Manning lives in one of Helping Hand's residential facilities. Manning, 58, has Down syndrome, and she recently started to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
"We were really worried now that my sister has developed Alzheimer’s because we thought she was going to have to go to a nursing home, and I knew should would be unhappy there,” said Greg Manning, her brother. “The longer than she can stay with Helping Hand, the happier she'll be."
The organization’s employees are trained to assist older people with disabilities, but it knows it won't always have the space or staff for all of its clients – especially as they age. Its plan, therefore, could eventually include training staff at nursing homes.
Helping Hand is trying to be proactive in caring for its aging clients. Hautamaki said the organization has started to conduct basic assessments on all its clients to detect for illnesses like Alzheimer’s, which can be diagnosed in someone with Down syndrome as early as age 40.
The organization will open two new houses for clients this year, either in La Grange or La Grange Park, and it hopes to continue adding houses. How many and how fast will of course depend on available money and the housing market.
"We really just feasibly can't take everybody into residential [housing]," Minshall said.