Most of the work Carmen Chandler has done in her life involves taking care of people in one way or another. Since 2009, that caring has been focused on her job as a householder for Easterseals Arc, through which she shares her home with Easterseals Arc participants in a program called Structured Family Caregiving.
No more than two individuals have lived with her at a time. Now just one, 47-year-old Ben, lives with her. During the day, Ben works at Easterseals Arc’s Projects Drive Group. Evenings, nights and weekends, he’s with Chandler.
In Structured Family Caregiving, which used to be known as adult foster care, an individual with a developmental disability lives with an adult or a family in a home setting. The caregiver, also known as a householder, provides supervision and support to the individual as well as integrating him or her into the family.
It’s an arrangement that helps them both.
For Chandler, it gives her the best chance to improve individuals’ lives. She sees a person’s needs close up, not as one among dozens of clients she used to monitor as a case manager. And it gives her a much more flexible schedule to attend to other needs in her life, such as helping her 97-year-old mother.
For Ben, it provides a good home to share with someone who cares about him. “I like it here,” he said. “I like the place here a lot. It’s a real nice place.”
In her youth, Chandler helped care for her grandmother and for her nephew when her sister worked. Later she worked in customer service with a telecommunications company. She has a bachelor’s degree in social work, but she’s quick to say, “I was a social worker before it was official.” She worked in group homes in California and for a regional center that provides services to people with disabilities.
Chandler merged her social-service and telecommunications background when she ran an operation that provided telephone relay service that allowed hearing people and those who are deaf to communicate with one another by phone.
Her work with the telephone relay service reminds her that if she had her life to do over again, “I might be a social anthropologist,” she said. She’s always been interested in finding out more about the lives of people different from herself, and getting to know people with hearing impairments and the culture they share was a fascinating mission for her.
“I always say God made me this way,” she said. “I’ve always been curious about people who have differences from what I have.” That combination of caring and curiosity makes her work with people with disabilities fulfilling.
Being in structured family caregiving is a comfortable fit with Ben, a cheerful, friendly man. “This does require a focus on another person, and it means putting that person first,” she said. His easy disposition makes it easy for her to make Ben a part of her extended family.
“He’s part of the family! I take him with me when I visit my family,” she said. When you’re a caregiver living with Easterseals Arc consumers, “You wouldn’t even think about not having them with you, because they’re family.”
“You start out thinking you’re going to do this to help someone out, but you end up learning from it and growing yourself. It’s always a two-way street,” she said.
Over the years, Ben has developed into a man who helps out more in keeping the home they share. He cleans his room, vacuums, takes the trash out and cleans his bathroom. He sorts and puts away his laundry.
Together, they enjoy seeing movies and going to Planet Fitness.
For people considering working as structured family caregivers, Chandler emphasizes that householders never go it alone in caring for the individuals they take into their homes. Other staff members or contractors help take the consumers to work or to other appointments. The recreation department at Easterseals Arc provides many entertainment opportunities for consumers, including those living in structured family caregiving.
“I love the collaboration. We work together to do our best for the client,” she said.