There are a number of programs in place to help children with autism, both in schools and out. For adults, finding help gets tougher, especially for senior citizens. However there is a program in Pensacola that caters to elders with developmental disabilities. "This (program) is unique. It was unique 30 years ago when it started and it remains unique" said Janet McIndewar, the Program Manager of the ARC Gateway Senior Adult Program. She says that in her travels around the state she has never come across a program for seniors with developmental disabilities like the one at ARC Gateway. "Some (other programs for people with autism or other developmental disabilities) have (something) like a room in the workshop, or in a work program, where seniors could get away. Because it's hard for them to be around young people all day. They like more peace and quite. But no one had, that I'm aware of, had a designated senior program."
The ARC Gateway Senior Adult Program is for seniors age 55 and older with developmental disabilities. "We have (seniors) with hearing impairment, speech impairment, (autism), and many who don't have a specific diagnosis because at the time they were growing up there were no screenings, it was just different. The population that I work with, the seniors with developmental disabilities, will age out because the young ones coming up will have more community experience and interaction and medical interventions that will make their lives a lot better."
Many of the seniors in the program spent some time in state institutions while growing up. Missy Rogers, the Chief Executive Officer at ARC Gateway says these people seem to have an easier time adjusting to the program. "They are more structured and more disciplined because they are used to an institutional routine. whereas those that have come from their family home are more like children."
For the most part, the seniors in the program have lived most of their lives with parents or other family members, sometimes without any government support. For children and young adults with autism there is a wait list for services and funding, but Janet McIndewar says the elders in the ARC Gateway program can sometimes get immediate support. "It may be a crisis situation. If you have a 60 year old who is living with an 80 year old parent, that would be considered a crisis situation and they would need to have some support for that grown child."
The program began at the Bayview Senior Center in Pensacola, and that is still the “home base” for most of the people in the program. The special rooms set up at the ARC Gateway campus are for those who need more care than Bayview can offer. McIndewar says the criteria for being at the Bayview center program include being able to follow directions and get around the building independently. They must also be able to interact with the public and not be a threat to wander from the building. "It's kind of a high bar for them so they're proud of it" said McIndewar. "They're in the community all day, they participate in the congregate meal program with the other seniors, they play Bingo, there are just so many opportunities to interact in a natural way."
McIndewar also says that when everyone socializes together at the senior center, the differences don’t seem that large. "Once they become a senior, they have more in common with the general population than they ever had in their lives." She says they talk about their health, the loss of family members and their concerns for their future.
The biggest worry continues to be funding the program. CEO Missy Rogers says the state provides the bulk of the finding, but they require the program offer training and education for the participants. "But our retirees do not want to continue to be trained and continue to learn new things. They just want to be happy and healthy and socialize. But in order to do that, to meet both the state's requirements and the desires of the program's participants it becomes very difficult."
And she says that’s also why this will continue to be a unique program for as long as it operates.