Mary Olson is not sure what she would have done without Aspire Aberdeen in the weeks after the death of her parents, now 10 years ago.
Mary’s brother, Dick, had been attending Aspire for about four years, participating in day services and living with his elderly parents in the evening when their father fell ill. While at the hospital for her father’s care, her mother got sick. Both of their parents passed away within three weeks of each other, leaving Mary grieving, exhausted and unsure how she would care for her brother who has a disability.
“I was planning two funerals and concerned about Dick,” she said. He had moved into her one-bedroom house and was sleeping in the living room. She worked full-time, assisted her disabled husband and wasn’t sure where to turn.
And then she called Aspire.
“We make it work”
Aspire serves around 160 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Nearly half of the people supported live in their own homes in the community. For those who require more support, Aspire offers residential supports in supervised apartment settings or group residences.
There wasn’t actually room for Dick at the time Mary called, Jennifer Gray recalls.
But Jennifer, executive director of Aspire, thought of how difficult it would have been for Dick to deal with the loss of a home and his two parents in such a short time. “Add on that he has an intellectual disability and just think about how devastating that would be,” she says. “We do have residential facilities, but we don’t just have beds available for people. But in these types of circumstances, we make it work.”
Around 160 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are served by Aspire.
Moving Dick into one of their facilities was a life-saving moment for their family, Mary recalls. She knew he was with friends, surrounded by staff who cared, and he was safe. She also knew she could spend regular time with him.
“I don’t know how else to describe it,” she says. “I was welcome to come at any time and I was there at meal times. His best friend was there and they shared a room. I don’t know what I would have done without Aspire.”
It’s something they hear often, Jennifer says. “There’s really a push now for less comprehensive services for people and to have them stay at home with family,” Jennifer says. “But a lot of the folks we serve, their parents, are aging and they don’t have the capacity to care for their loved ones like they would like to.”
That is a reality. And it can be addressed with comprehensive services by organizations like Aspire.
Dick moved into a residential Aspire facility in 2008 and passed away this past December. Toward the end of his life, Dick was able to stay at Aspire, with the assistance of hospice care. It’s one more way the organization is able to support families—avoiding a stressful move to another facility. “Our arms were wrapped around him and Mary could come be with him,” Jennifer recalls.
Staff at Aspire continued to provide quality care as Dick struggled with the anger, frustration and memory loss brought on by his dementia and the challenge of being bedridden. “I’m so thankful that our organization allows people to stay through the end of life,” Jennifer says. “Sending them to another provider in the last days is traumatic. For staff also, they say it would be so much harder if they wouldn’t be able to be part of the process at the end.”
Organizations like Aspire play a fundamental role in society caring for the vulnerable, and the Direct Support Professionals who work there—and elsewhere—deserve support. “I’m so proud of our staff,” Jennifer says. “They’re rock stars. I don’t know that people put a value on compassion. I have seen the staff work together during someone’s last 24 hours—swab the mouth, suck the extra secretion, make sure they have no bed sores, clean and they do it all with dignity and love and humor.”
That, too, is reality.
Daily, staff make challenging medical decisions, cook, clean, drive, do laundry, and support each resident’s emotional, physical and mental needs. “They handle medical and behavioral challenges in crisis situations and they are responsible for a lot,” Jennifer says.
The work is vital to the community—and state—and should be celebrated and supported with resources and quality pay. Mary agrees. “If people could just see the time that staff spends with the people they serve and the quality of care they give, it just amazes me,” she says.
Mary feels joy in knowing her brother was loved and cared for not only in the prime of his adulthood, but in his final days. “He had a contagious smile,” she says. “When he was himself, he would joke and laugh and tease, and remind other residents to be nice. He was very respectful. He was just genuinely a nice person.”
It’s an honor, Jennifer says, to help families create good memories. And then be there to help them let go at the end. “We walk this journey with them. And we hope to continue doing that.”