SHERIDAN — Melissa Rush has structured her entire life around caring for her son, Spencer.
Spencer, who is 5, has autism and requires constant supervision. Rush lives alone and has no family nearby — she moved from Salt Lake City to Wyoming in October in large part because she believed the state’s school system would offer Spencer more opportunities.
She works as an insurance agent, part time, because the job has a reliable schedule; she can’t afford to work overtime, evenings, weekends or holidays, because she needs to get home to take care of Spencer.
But taking care of Spencer limits what she can do and where she can go.
Spencer is hyperactive — most 5-year-old boys are restless, but Spencer is constitutionally incapable of sitting still. He wanders and fiddles with everything he can get his hands on and climbs and yells, usually with a smile on his face.
He means well, but he’s a handful.
“Right now I have to do groceries on my lunch break at work — because I can’t do it with him, it is not fun to go to a store with my son,” Rush said. “ I can’t get a haircut with him, because he’ll be all over the salon. I can’t do these normal things that people do.”
When she moved to Wyoming, Rush applied for, and was granted, respite care through the Wyoming Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Division. The program pays for a caregiver to come to Rush’s home and watch Spencer for a few hours, giving her time to herself. That time would be invaluable, Rush said, not just in easing her nerves, but also in letting her run everyday errands.
Sheridan, however, has only four respite care providers, according to the Wyoming Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Division, and none of them are accepting new clients. Which means Rush needs to get off work in time to pick up Spencer from school or day camp, no exceptions.
“The only times I’m not with Spencer, I’m working,” Rush said.
Jamie Hoeft, the support center coordinator at The Hub on Smith and a local developmental disability waiver case manager, said finding respite care providers has never been easy in Sheridan. There is not much awareness surrounding how valuable respite providers can be in the community, Hoeft said. And, she added, many times people who are interested get scared off by the lengthy, complicated certification process through the state.
Hoeft stressed that being a respite care provider is not a full-time job; the hours are inconsistent and the pay is low.
“The people who do it are doing it are doing it to provide a community service,” Hoeft said.
But the process for becoming a respite caregiver is fraught with red tape, Hoeft said, which can discourage people, especially people looking only to provide occasional care, from completing it.
It involves a background check that can take weeks, or sometimes months, to complete. And once in the program, caregivers are tasked with documenting their work with patients and keeping up with the parameters of a program that is undergoing constant revisions.
For caregivers who only work in the program part time, keeping track of those changing requirements can be difficult.
“If you’re just doing it as a side-gig and you’re not really aware of all of the changes that are going on an all that’s required of you, it just doesn’t make it very user friendly, unfortunately,” Hoeft said.
Because the state manages the program centrally, it’s administered with a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t always account for different needs of different communities.
“A lot of decisions and policy regarding respite care and services through the developmental disabilities waiver are made down in Cheyenne, which is a very different environment,” Hoeft said. “They have a lot of different resources, a much bigger population — what works in Cheyenne doesn’t necessarily work in a town of 17,000.”
Hoeft is quick to add that she doesn’t blame the Department of Health, its doing the most with what it’s given.
Both Rush and Hoeft encouraged community members to explore getting involved with the respite care program by contacting a local case manager through the Wyoming Department of Health website.
Even a small commitment could have a huge impact, Rush said.
“They only want to work two days a month?” Rush said. “That would personally change my life.”