Lifesharing allows families to open homes, hearts to disabled
William and Jaylee Trzyna of North Versailles were empty-nesters who found they had room and time to care for someone else in 2009.
They opened their home and hearts to Robert Pounds, who is intellectually disabled.
“They care, and they take care of me,” said Pounds, 62.
He came to live with the Trzynas in November 2009 through a program called Lifesharing, in which people with intellectual disabilities live with families or individuals to whom they are not related but who provide a supportive home environment. One goal is to provide an alternative to group home living.
Founded in 1982 as Family Living, Lifesharing is coordinated statewide by county agencies — and regulated by the state Department of Public Welfare's Office of Developmental Programs — but agencies in Western Pennsylvania are finding that a small percentage of eligible clients join, officials said.
“The Lifesharing program is something the state is trying to see more people get involved with because the quality of life goes up,” said Jamie Walker, chair of the Westmoreland County Lifesharing Coalition. It costs taxpayers less than group homes, said Walker, who is also a program specialist for Westmoreland County Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
There are 70 Lifesharing clients living in host households in Allegheny County, but about 2,000 intellectually disabled people in the county are eligible for Lifesharing because they are enrolled in a Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services' waiver program that funds Lifesharing, in-home supports and other services, said Brenda Bulkoski, assistant administrator for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Office of Intellectual Disability, which coordinates Lifesharing at the local level.
“In Allegheny County, we've had a tough time engaging people who might want host homes. I think sometimes (their) families think that, “I'm letting my son or daughter move in with another family because I'm not capable (of providing care).' … It has a negative connotation,” Bulkoski said.
It's a misconception that a disabled person in Lifesharing is living with a host as a result of poor care from his own family, said Sandy Orr, Lifesharing and specialized foster care supervisor at McKeesport-based Mon Yough Community Services Inc., which is one of the 11 provider agencies in Allegheny County that link clients with hosts.
“Lifesharing … doesn't replace families. It's just an extension of the family that's already there,” she said.
Pounds lived with his mother in nursing and personal care homes for several years until she died in May 2009, Orr said. Before Pounds' brother, Richard, died of cancer in May 2010, he made arrangements for Robert Pounds to enroll in the Lifesharing program through Mon Yough Community Services, said Jaylee Trzyna, 54, a residential adviser at Mon Yough.
Pounds is more active in the Trzynas' household than he was in the personal care and nursing homes and he is more verbal, she said.
“He gets more opportunities to go places. He gets love. He gets to do activities with us,” Jaylee Trzyna said.
Since moving in with the Trzynas, Pounds has lost 100 pounds, Orr said.
He participates in a vocational program four days a week in the West Mifflin location of ACHIEVA, a South Side-based nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, Jaylee Trzyna said.
Lifesharers, the term for hosts, can house up to two people at a time. They must pass criminal background checks and child abuse clearances; undergo CPR, first aid and other training; and be willing to have their home periodically inspected by provider agencies, Orr said.
Provider agencies in Allegheny County, such as Mon Yough Community Services, have been reimbursed a total of about $2.8 million annually from the state to operate Lifesharing for the last three years, Bulkoski said. Those reimbursements cover the costs of stipends paid to the hosts to support the individuals they care for, as well as administrative costs incurred by the agencies, she said.
The majority of Lifesharing caregivers are reimbursed in a range that averages about $100 to $175 a day, Bulkoski said.
There are many variables that go into determining a stipend. Those include the needs of the person receiving Lifesharing.
In Pounds' spare time, he likes taking care of the family's four cats, visiting the Trzynas' two adult daughters, whom he calls his sisters, and washing dishes. He's a big fan of going to flea markets to find old black and white movies.
He has his favorites: anything starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.