SARATOGA SPRINGS — Social distancing and self-isolation have become the norm in today’s world, but what happens when your entire job is based around social contact and stimulation?
Direct support professionals at Saratoga Bridges have been working since COVID-19 has struck the community, working hands-on with individuals living in houses or supportive apartments. Saratoga Bridges provides professional services to people with developmental disabilities. The non-profit ensures individuals are able to realize their goals, hopes and dreams and help accomplish them.
Sloan Russell is an assistant residential manager at Saratoga Bridges. For Russell’s daily duties, he helps six individuals take care of their daily needs. The needs vary each day and Russell helps with any banking duties, weekly shopping and even administers medication.
“I help with everything that they need done in order to exist as a regular person in society,” Russell said. “Typically, our jobs are to help them feel more a part of the society that they’re in, but it’s reverse psychology here. Normally we’re trying to bring them into society…to let them feel more a part of daily life and interact with people outside of what they’re used to. Now, we have to keep ourselves distanced.”
Sloan Russell social distancing with Tina.
Russell works in a behavior house, meaning different situations and trigger points can impact one resident differently than others. He works a steady schedule with three women and three men in his house, helping with anything they need. Russell even helps with individual’s meal plans. Some individuals are tube fed, which staff are trained and certified for, while others have special diets including a ground diet and low acid diets.
Despite his daily duties, Russell’s day begins before he steps foot into the house, going through a screening before he enters the home. The screening process includes a check of temperature and heart rate, oxygen status and a standard questionnaire. The goal is to monitor as many things as possible, from vital signs to personal experiences on how they’re feeling for the day.
One of the hardest tasks Russell and other direct support professionals have taken on is explaining the virus. Although he goes through daily screening, not every resident understands what COVID-19 is all about.
“It takes a lot of explaining and a lot of just careful planning with all the staff on how we handle it. You have to ease everyone into it. Tell them everyone else is doing it and it’s not just them,” Russell said. “Everyone is their own person, so how we explain to them is case by case.”
Direct support professional Dawnmarie Costantino said consistency as well as repetitiveness helps individuals understand the virus. Using the same type of sentence throughout the entire staff can help reinforce proper behavior.
“It’s interesting because you have different forms of communication with the individuals in one home. Some of them do tactile manual signs, others are completely verbal, and others just do ASL. Then you have folks that are nonverbal who utilize gestures or physical movements for you to understand how they are feeling,” Costantino said. “It’s already a challenge so when we’re in a situation like this, reassuring them, letting them know why we are here and keeping everything consistent and concise will help them stay in a better face and be willing to participate in activities that are being offered at home.”
Russell reflected the same thoughts, adding some individuals are verbal, open to current events and consistently on social media while others are the opposite. He said those individuals that don’t understand what’s going on think they are being kept at home on purpose.
“It’s tough. You feel for them because you can’t explain everything to them.
They look at you and ask why you’re wearing a mask around them, or constantly washing our hands. They want to know what’s going on with that and why extra activities taking place,” Russell said.
The extra activity Russell is referring to doesn’t only include proper PPE and screening procedures, but the “day-hab” classes as well. Prior to social restrictions, individuals in Saratoga Bridges would participate in a day program, or day-hab. Pamela Polacsek, assistant director of communications, said the day program has since moved to the individual’s houses or apartments.
“Because of the virus, all of our day staff are going and working in the houses during the day. The individuals who would normally be in a day program setting or at work are now at home,” Polacsek said.
The day-hab would normally partake in Wilton, Clifton Park, and off of Exit 13. At those locations, Polascek said an upwards of 450 individuals would get transported to partake in the day-hab.
Costantino would teach day-hab classes to 13 individuals from different agencies. Now, Costantino teaches a group of five in their own home. Just as Russell goes through the initial screening each morning, Costantino does the same. She now see’s her classroom individuals earlier in the day, allowing her to get a better idea on how everyone is feeling that morning.
She starts each day with an activity schedule, so the five individuals always know what to expect. They start with daily communication, talking about the day of the week and month.
“We talk about the things are good for them cognitively to remember. It’s very good for people to continue remembering where they are in their day or their months. Everyday we do the same thing to help them with structure and we see end results, helping them with their own cognitive abilities,” Costantino said.
After the daily communication, Costantino will focus on different activates each day. Activities including a math group, music exercise activities and preparing meals are some of the few. In her math class, Costantino teaches the typical school layout but adjusts the level for each individual.
“Not everyone gets the same thing out of it, but everyone gets something. I try to engage them in a lot of music. It’s really good for you to feel music and move to music. It lets people forget about what’s bothering them and their worries because they’re engaged in something with such a great energy,” Costantino said.
Having a set routine helps some individuals out who prefer having a schedule ahead of time. Costantino said when the individuals have a routine, they know what they’re looking forward to and can help with forgetfulness. She said some individuals may start forgetting earlier than others, but being able to remind them of the daily schedule helps their mental health. Bringing day-hab to their homes is something new to the residents as well, and having a schedule helps them differentiate between class and regular home hours.
Russell said his individuals have responded well since COVID-19 struck. Although they are coping, Russell noticed they missed going outside the most. He said outings with his house have always been a big deal, going to play basketball or to a department store. They are trying to incorporate sensory rides, using a van to keep individuals six-feet apart.
“We go out and do a ride through the neighborhood or go out by lake. We drive around so they can see scenery and look at nature. The biggest thing is trying to keep everyone isolated from outside contact as much as possible right now. It’s a reversal of typically what we do,” Russell said.
Polacsek felt direct support professionals often get overlooked when someone defines an essential worker. In response to that, she created the hash-tag WeAreEssential to call attention to direct support professionals.
“Our field, a lot of times, gets overlooked as far as the essential work they do to enhance, improve and empower other peoples lives. It’s truly very inspiring…their commitment and devotion and flexibility throughout this whole virus,” Polacsek said.
Saratoga Bridges supports 132 people in their residential program, having 19 houses and 10 supportive apartments through the county. Of those individuals, Polacsek said 150 work in the community.
“A lot of our individuals have worked in grocery stores for years, and they’re working hard because the current hours to go into work. They’re providing support to the community as well. They’re certainly able to support the community that’s supporting them,” Polacsek said.
Russell feels that direct support professionals often get forgotten because people don’t understand the way these individuals live and their daily routines. He said the hash-tag wasn’t created for the work they’re doing during COVID-19, but rather the daily routines before and after COVID-19 they will continue to do.
“People don’t think there is actually staff out there helping and aiding. That there are individuals in these homes, where if we don’t come in or are not able to help these guys, they wouldn’t be able to live in these independent homes and enjoy life as it is. Some have no clue, they just think that these guys are autonomous. That they’re just out there living their best life not knowing how they live it,” Russell said.
Just as he goes through a screening to protect the individuals in his home, he does the same when he goes home to his family. Russell can work a 12 or 16-hour shift and feels at the end of the day, all essential workers are in the same situations.
“I’m trying to get other people to recognize what exactly a front line worker is, there are so many different aspects of being a front line worker. At the end of the day, all of us essential workers are all in the same boat. We all have to still work, so the chances of cross contamination between your job and your personal life is at an all-time high,” Russell said.
While Russell hopes to shed some light on his daily job for the community, Costantino said she noticed the work residential staff do. Since stepping outside her classroom, she noticed how careful the staff works with the individuals, ensuring every room in the house is sanitary. She noticed individual’s bedrooms were personalized as well.
“I have to say I’m really amazed about how much more work my residential coworkers do that I wasn’t aware of before. There are a lot more involved that I didn’t know,” Costantino said.