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Global Pandemic Has Serious Impact on Those with Developmental Disabilities

PBS Wisconsin spoke with two people with developmental disabilities in Rhinelander to see how life during the pandemic was going for them. Our interview with John and Carol Anne was arranged with help from Jenny Felty, Director of Headwaters, Inc., a Rhinelander-based human services agency whose partners include the Ashland and Bayfield Counties Departments of Health and Human Services. Part 1 is a visit with John and Carol Anne. Jenny Felty provides a larger context about people with special needs during the pandemic in Part 2 which is a Q&A.

By Andy Moore | Here & Now

May 5, 2020

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A man and two women sitting around a picnic table

At Home with John and Carol Anne

Rhinelander residents John and Carol Anne have a lot in common. They live in the same apartment building. They both worked in jobs they liked before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. They love watching movies and taking walks. They also have developmental disabilities. Self-isolation brings a special kind of stress to their lives.

Woman sitting on a couchCarol Anne (who prefers to only use her first name) lost her job at the Rhinelander Goodwill when the store closed due to the pandemic. “I’m very upset about it,” she said, in an interview arranged by Jenny Felty, Director at Headwaters Inc., a Rhinelander-based human services provider. Carol Anne “worked in the back and in the front putting clothes away.” She liked her co-workers and helping customers.

For a person who liked her work, finding out it would be no more while on the job was a blow. Carol Anne was told the store would close when she was in the middle of a shift. She left for home that day with a packet of information explaining the closure. Even though her supervisor told her she’d get a call when she can return to work, she still calls the store to see when they’ll open again. No one answers.

Losing work was bad enough but social restrictions are a daily challenge as well. “I missed my birthday,” she said. “I missed Easter.” Carol Anne said she particularly misses singing in the church choir. While she can’t physically worship in the building, “I still walk by it,” she said. Fellow-church members call her to make sure she’s okay.

For now she’s filling her days with movies, exercising and walks. She said she knows to keep six feet away from others. “I miss seeing my friends and family,” she said. She also misses going shopping and to the post office. She adds, “I wish the virus would just go away.”

Man holding paintingJohn Ehlinger lives in the same apartment building as Carol Anne. He’s glad to still have two shifts per-week at the Kwik Trip. “I maintain focus at work and I keep busy,” he said. From the sound of it, “keep busy” may be an understatement. He stocks coolers, checks product dates, collects all the garbage inside and out, and pitches in at the registers by authorizing gas pumps. “Things are basically the same at Kwik Trip,” he said, “except we’re social distancing.” He added that he and his co-workers also do a lot more disinfecting on things like door handles.

When not at work, Ehlinger dives into his art projects and painting, takes walks and enjoys music and movies. But, like so many among us, he’s worried. He worries about friends he talks with, including Carol Anne, people without work. He said he’s concerned about what will be left of the economy even when things open back up, not to mention places that will remain closed.

“I’m really going to miss helping out at the Rhinelander Logging Museum this summer. They’re not sure they’re going to be able to open up.”

A Q&A with Rhinelander Human Services Provider Jenny Felty
Headwaters, Inc., Director Speaks to Challenges for Caregivers During Pandemic

PBS Wisconsin: Every person is different but, generally speaking, what are some of the challenges for people with cognitive disabilities during these times?

Jenny Felty: People with cognitive disabilities tend to be very socially isolated on a regular basis. It’s because of this that organizations like the one I work for do everything we can to combat this social isolation. We’ve done a good job connecting John and Carol Anne to their communities and the world around them. They are fortunate in many ways but they’re also feeling the sting of required social distancing in response to the global pandemic. For many other individuals we support, who don’t have those well-established social networks, these times are especially challenging. Some of these individuals also have mental health issues that make this social isolation even harder and their caregivers — whether it be family or paid caregivers — are experiencing a lot of stress because they’re providing this care while also dealing with their own response to the pandemic.

PBS Wisconsin: What is the impact of the pandemic on organizations like yours?

Jenny Felty: Most organizations like ours are not providing services during this time. This has created a lot of stress for the people we support, for our staff who’ve been furloughed for the most part, and for our organization’s ongoing financial well-being. Some organizations are trying to figure out different ways to support people while practicing physical distancing so they/we can re-open.

PBS Wisconsin: Are you seeing stress levels increase for people with disabilities?

Jenny Felty: Yes. I haven’t talked with anyone who isn’t stressed because of everything going on. They’re worried, just like the rest of us. Some individuals who don’t really understand what’s going on are very confused and upset about why and how their lives are so disrupted right now.

PBS Wisconsin: What can community members do to improve the lives of people with disabilities right now?

Jenny Felty: Seek out the people in their communities who have disabilities and check in on them in some way. Even a short check-in or conversation with physical distancing can make someone’s day.

PBS Wisconsin: What are you hopeful about?

Jenny Felty: I’m hopeful about the resiliency I’ve seen in people. We’re also developing some on-line and virtual-remote service options that will teach people how to connect to each in the same virtual-remote ways other people are using right now.
PBS Wisconsin: And John and Carol Anne? What are your hopes for them?

Jenny Felty: I drive by the apartment building where John and Carol Anne live on my way to and from work and I used to see them outside walking together on a regular basis. I can’t wait to start seeing that again.

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