Judi Miles has spent more than a year assisting people with special needs through her job as a direct support professional with The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region.
Over the past five-and-a-half weeks, though, Miles has been performing her duties providing in-home care to three men amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like this is the right place for me to be,” she said.
Miles must get her temperature checked before she starts each shift, wear a mask at all times, wash her hands frequently and maintain a sense of normalcy for the three men, who were able to get out in the community before the pandemic. They now must stay at home, like many of their fellow Marylanders, to help slow the spread of the virus.
“It’s crucial for them to have consistency and good quality care, to have familiar faces of staff who truly care about their well-being,” Kim Vaughn, director of community living for The Arc, said.
The Arc Northern Chesapeake, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Aberdeen, serves people in Cecil and Harford counties with developmental and intellectual disabilities “from birth through the end of life, or over ‘The Arc of their lifetime,’” according to organization’s website.
“We are seen as family to many of the individuals that we support, and one of our many priorities is to ensure health and safety and become advocates for them when needed,” Vaughn said.
About 250 of The Arc’s roughly 350 staffers provide in-home care services to nearly 100 individuals served through the organization’s community living program. Many live in houses or apartments provided by The Arc, according to Vaughn.
‘Not so much about myself’
In addition to protecting herself and her three charges, Miles must ensure her husband is protected when she comes home as he has a compromised immune system. People of all ages and conditions are at risk from COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions face the greatest risk.
That means Miles must take additional sanitation measures when she gets off work at the individuals’ residence in Joppa and then arrives at home in the Perryville area. Miles also must take safety precautions when delivering groceries to her 77-year-old mother.
She remains committed to her work, though, noting that “it’s not so much about myself as it is about the individuals.”
“It’s about them, keeping everyone safe — including myself, of course — but I’m always looking out for everybody else first,” Miles, 43, said.
Miles began working for The Arc in February of 2019. She started in the personal support field, working with individuals on a one-on-one basis. Miles visited them in their homes, learned their needs, helped them clean their dwellings, prepare meals, or spend time with them working on crafts, going shopping or taking part in community activities.
She transferred about two-and-a-half months ago to The Arc’s community partners program, through which she worked with individuals as a group, taking them to activities in the community.
Miles has spent nearly six weeks in her current role — she and her colleagues provide in-home care 24 hours a day. The three individuals she works with, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, have been homebound since March 13 because they cannot go to their usual day programs, due to the coronavirus.
It has been “a big adjustment for them, to be in the house all day,” Miles said. She noted that, prior to the coronavirus, the individuals could go out for a variety of activities such as shopping, visiting community centers and going on picnics with friends, in addition to the day program.
The men are not confined to the house, however. Miles said one individual likes to ride his bike or take walks with her around the neighborhood, plus they can be in the yard for activities such as planting seeds.
“They can still feel like they are doing something instead of just sitting [in the house],” Miles said.
She takes multiple precautions before and during her shift such as getting her temperature taken, keeping her phone in a plastic bag and wearing a mask and gloves. Miles said “The Arc has been wonderful” in making sure she and her colleagues have sufficient protective gear.
“If we’re running low on something, they make sure they get it to us,” she said.
Officials with The Arc “try to take every precaution they we can think of” to ensure the safety of individuals and staff. Crews clean the houses regularly, staff health is monitored on a “shift-by-shift" basis, and social distancing methods, such as not sitting around the dinner table together, are emphasized, according to Vaughn.
“[We are] just trying to ensure that everyone, overall, is taking the precautions that we need to take,” she said.
Caring for family
Miles must ensure she does not bring any infection risk into the individuals’ house, and she must do the same in her own home to protect her husband.
Once her shift ends and she gets in her car, Miles wipes down any exposed skin with sanitary wipes. She takes her shoes off outside when she arrives at home and texts her husband to let him know she is there, giving him time to go to a separate part of the house. Once inside, she puts her clothes in the laundry and then showers.
Miles also takes precautions when delivering groceries to her mother — she puts the bags at the door, and then her mother unpacks them while wearing gloves.
She has worked as an emergency medical technician in the past, both as a volunteer and paid medic with Hart to Heart Transportation. She noted that “we’re always cleaning everything, anyway” as an EMT, similar to what she does now.
Miles also has helped care for her now-12-year-old nephew, who was diagnosed with autism when he was a baby. She helped with his occupational and physical therapy until her nephew was old enough to start school and receive services through his school system.
The experience with her nephew inspired her to learn about other disabilities and special needs, which has helped during Miles’ time with The Arc.
“Each case is different, each individual is different, but I love learning different [things], regardless of what it is,” she said.
Part of Miles’ work with the individuals involves helping them understand why they must remain at home during the pandemic. She noted one man does not communicate verbally. She can sit and watch the news with another individual who understands that many people have the contagious illness.
“They’ve adjusted pretty well on grasping the concept of why they can’t go [out],” she said.
Miles and her colleagues work to keep the individuals’ spirits up, “letting them know, ‘Hey, you guys will go back to your programs, everything will go back to normal.’”