A day in the life of someone caring for a person with disabilities during COVID-19

“We've yet to even begin to imagine the kind of mental health toll that all of this will take on everyone. And particularly people with various disabilities.”

  • Keira McGuire

On April 29, Dennis Downey, a retired professor of history at Millersville University, sat at home in Lancaster County thinking about his son, Thomas.

Thomas is one of five children. Dennis says his 29-year-old son has a wonderful personality and a great sense of humor. Thomas also has cerebral palsy, an intellectual disability and autism.

About five years ago, he moved to a small group home just five minutes from Dennis and his wife, Traci. Because of COVID-19, it has been more than three weeks since Dennis has been able to see his son in person. Instead, they have been relying on daily FaceTime calls.

“FaceTime has proven to be great, but it’s a very poor substitute for the human connection and the presence of another person,” Dennis said. “Just this morning, on the way back from a doctor’s errand, I drove by his house. There’s always a bit of a degree of longing, because you can’t stop. You can’t stop and just say hello.”

Dennis says many families who have loved ones with disabilities have had to adjust to altered routines during this time. He says Thomas and others with disabilities have had to adjust even more.

On a typical day, Thomas would have a work schedule and volunteer responsibilities. He would also go on a walk and spend time in the community.

“That’s now all restricted. He’s just not able to do that. And so for him, his whole daily routine is pretty much spent at his house,” said Dennis. “We’ve yet to even begin to imagine the kind of mental health toll that all of this will take on everyone. And particularly people with various disabilities.”

Traci Downey is dealing with the separation from her son by making care packages which she drops off at the home. Her latest package includes hand cream, snacks, rice crispy treats — her son’s favorite — and gas gift cards.

“We’re just trying to let them know, the staff especially, how much we appreciate what they’re doing. They really are on the frontlines here in taking care of people, and we just want to let them know how much we appreciate them and let Thomas know how much we love him,” she said.

While Dennis and Traci are thankful for technology that allows them to stay in contact with their son, they are eager for the day when they can be together again.

“Resuming normal family life will be a gift and I don’t think we’ll take it for granted. I know that Thomas won’t. It’s all part of what it means to be a family, to be together,” Dennis said.

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