For Georgiana Schmitt, 21, volunteering weekly at the Durango/La Plata County Senior Center is a step toward finding work as a cook and living alone.
“Even if it’s hard, I want to do it,” she said.
With her work coach, Valerie Woody, at her side, Schmitt, who has dyslexia and a low IQ, sets tables and prepares fruit cups, practicing to work alone.
For years, hundreds of people, like Schmitt, with intellectual and developmental disabilities, waited for the same chance to be able to spend time in the community with a guide.
In July, the Colorado General Assembly provided funding for 2,040 new people to receive these services through Medicaid. Statewide, this should eliminate the wait list for at least two years, said Barb Ramsey, director of the Division for Developmental Disabilities.
The services vary greatly depending on the need. For example, Woody, a direct support professional, helps her clients manage money, work out at the recreation center, clean and volunteer.
She also provides individualized guidance to Schmitt, her friend Kayla Sutherland and her other clients, so they can achieve their goals.
Schmitt explained she needs help with math and learning to deal with customers who may be unkind. Before moving out of her cousin’s house, she also needs to learn to take the bus, Woody said. But Woody has faith that she’ll get there.
Woody helps Sutherland, who has Down syndrome, with hygiene, money management and connecting with the community by volunteering at the senior center and humane society.
While she can get caught up in stress, she said her clients bring her back to a simple and pleasant life perspective.
“You have to have an open heart,” Woody said.
While out in the community, the hope is Schmitt, Sutherland and others will make friends and supporters in the community.
“For many without these services, they are at great risk of isolation,” said Jody Beard, the supported-living services manager for Community Connections.
To help make care more person-centered, she encourages them to interview their own direct support staff.
“They are the boss at the end of the day,” she said.
Locally, Community Connections is working to fill 14 new openings for these supported-living services created by the state this summer, but the demand has been slow, she said.
The nonprofit has been calling people who have been on the wait list for 10 years, but while potential clients have been waiting, their families have found other ways to help them navigate daily life.
The same trend has been true statewide. Of the 2,040 openings, 197 have been filled, Ramsey said. More than 100 of those new people transferred from a Medicaid program that provided 24/7 care to supported-living services.
In the past, people waited so long for services that even though they may need help only intermittently, they accepted all-day care because funding was available, Ramsey said.
But for those in need of constant care, the wait continues for about 1,450 people, according to a state strategic plan. This number may be inflated because it is not unusual for parents to put their child on the list even before they are eligible because the waits have been so long, Ramsey said.
Constant care is not nursing-home care. It can be provided at home or in a home with roommates also in need of help, but it is far more expensive than supported-living services.
This is one of the reasons why the state has decided not to fund it yet, said Josh Rael, executive director of the Alliance Colorado, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities.
The potentially inflated numbers are another reason the state Legislature is waiting.
“Policymakers recognize the need to have a more accurate picture of what people’s needs are in order to know how much funding will be necessary to end the (developmentally disabled) waiting list,” he said.
The end goal is to eliminate wait lists by 2020. As part of that push, Ramsey’s department wants to develop a better tracking system for the wait lists, so it is possible to clearly determine a person’s position on the wait list.
In addition, the state hopes to combine the supported-living services and the comprehensive services into one program in order to simplify enrollment.
“I’m genuinely excited about where our system is going,” Ramsey said.