In the Hunters Ridge Apartments, each resident has a daytime caregiver providing a set number of hours per week.
Losing a sister to breast cancer forced Melanie Cohn to address the question that keeps every parent of a child with a disability awake at night: “Who will take care of my child when I’m gone?”
Watching her nieces and nephew become orphans, Cohn suddenly realized the importance of making and implementing a long-term plan for her 23-year-old autistic son Spencer. Although she and her husband are healthy and Spencer has a younger brother, Cohen felt it was important to find housing that would give Spencer his independence and allow him to live in an environment where he would not feel isolated.
While researching options, she came across the concept of an intentional community and felt it would be the best living situation for her son. The idea intrigued her because Spencer could live with his peers in housing that would be walking distance from shopping and a potential place for him to work, which is especially important since he does not drive. Plus, living among the residents, there would be a community builder whose part-time job would be to mediate roommate disputes, etc.
While the concept was intriguing, there were no local options. Cohen, who lives in West Bloomfield, joined a handful of like-minded moms who were creating an intentional community. They shared a vision, agreed on a mission statement, and ultimately formed a nonprofit organization called Integrative Neighborhoods of Oakland County.
The group has seven young adults with varying degrees of disabilities, all living in three apartments in Hunters Ridge Apartments and Townhouses, in Farmington Hills. They are also looking to expand to other areas around Oakland County and collaborating with almost a dozen families looking to establish an intentional community east of Woodward.
In the Hunters Ridge Apartments, each resident has a daytime caregiver providing a set number of hours per week. The residents also work or attend a day program. For example, Spencer has a job cleaning at West Bloomfield High School and has state funding for a caregiver to spend 20 hours a week with him.
When Spencer isn’t working, he likes to ride his bike around the neighborhood or walk to one of the nearby stores, where he regularly buys a diet Coke. He also enjoys participating in game nights organized by his roommate Stanley Wolf.
During the summer, these bi-weekly Saturday night gatherings took place outside because of COVID. As the temperatures dropped, game night moved to an online format. There was also talk of starting Shabbat dinners (four of the seven residents are Jewish) but until there is a vaccine, Friday night dinners are on hold.
Spencer and Wolf share a three-bedroom apartment with one other roommate. According to Wolf, they’ve lived there for one year and five months and love their independence.
“I can do what I want, and I have good roommates,” said Wolf, who likes to go bowling, hang out with friends and watch movies. From his apartment, Wolf watched Temple Israel’s High Holiday services. “I was excited about living on my own. There’s nothing hard about it.”
As for the parents, they said it was difficult initially, but the growth and independence they’ve seen from their kids has been remarkable.
“At first, I was very anxious and worried,” said Helen Barron, whose son Jacob, 30, just signed his third one-year lease. “Were they going to lock the door? Would they remember to turn off the oven or would he call if there was a problem?”
Cohn added: “It was a hard decision to move him out. We know he’s young, but we felt there wouldn’t be a difference if we did it now versus 10 years from now.”
Barron and Cohen marvel at the growth in their sons’ independence and feel comfortable with each of them living on their own. They appreciate the fact that their sons are part of a community and can make their own decisions.
“I didn’t want him to feel isolated or living in a situation where someone else would make choices for him because he’s capable of making his own decisions. It was very important for him to feel and be as independent as he can be,” Barron said.
Although their sons are doing well, the mothers’ work is far from done. They are looking to bring in an on-site, part-time staff member to handle nighttime emergencies, help the residents resolve conflicts and facilitate social activities. It’s a position they had hoped to fill long ago, but securing funding is challenging, and being in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t help.
While the group is actively fundraising, many of the events they had were canceled or modified because of COVID. A No-Go July 4 party brought in some revenue. The group is selling tribute cards and soliciting donations on its website. Plans include reaching out to local businesses for support as well.
More information about Integrative Neighborhoods of Oakland County can be found at https://integrative-neighborhoods.com.
Correction (10/9/20): An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Melanie Cohn and Reed McAlpin.