When Eden Autism was founded in 1975, it was a day school serving just six families. Today, the organization serves more than 200 clients, including five of the original six, many of whom are entering their senior years. Its oldest client is now 76.
The group has evolved to serve the changing needs of its clients as they have gotten older. In addition to the school, Eden now operates an adult program. Now, it is opening a third facility: a day center for aging adults.
In opening the center, Eden is breaking new ground because most other organizations serving autistic people throughout the country have focused on children, and to some extent working-age adults. Very few have established facilities specializing in retirement-age adults with autism.
“It is certainly an area that needs more focus,” says Eden CEO Michael Decker. “When you look at our lives, we are senior adults much longer than we are children, but as the prevalence of autism has increased, a lot of those individuals are going to be seniors.”
The Schalks Crossing Day Center for Aging Adults is located in the Shalks Crossing shopping center in Plainsboro and is scheduled to open at the end of July, and a grand opening celebration is scheduled for Thursday, August 15, from 10 a.m. to noon. The center will have 20 staff and 28 residents to start, and eventually expand to 40 residents. Its focus will be on serving people aged 55 and over, but the youngest participants are around 35.
Program director Rachel Tait said historically most autism programming has focused on children, and in the last few years has paid more attention to adults. But just as with adults who do not have autism, Eden’s clients must eventually transition from working life to retirement. At the new day care center, adults will learn skills to help them make this transition.
The center was converted from a former gym and has a large amount of space for recreation areas, a kitchen for learning cooking skills, a washer and dryer for learning how to do laundry, and other areas focusing on different domestic skills.
Every detail of the center was thought out with the needs of older adults in mind. The kitchen has counter-height chairs so clients can sit comfortably while preparing food. Chairs throughout the building are comfortable but not too soft, since older adults have a harder time getting up from soft chairs that allow the user to sink in. There are wide doorways throughout the facility and no stairs. Men’s and women’s locker rooms give clients a place to change their clothes and store their belongings.
Part of the center is geared towards clients with greater medical needs and physical restrictions and includes a nurse’s station.
Tait says that like all of Eden’s services, the programming will be based on “applied behavior analysis,” which is a teaching method geared towards people with autism.
Decker said building the center is part of Eden’s strategy for adapting the organization to serve clients as they age. The entire effort is based around helping people “age in place” rather than placing them in unfamiliar institutions. In addition to building the day care center, Eden is re-evaluating the housing where many of its clients live to make it more accessible. (Many of the clients are not just enrolled in day care programs, but receive services from Eden 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.) The principles behind the “aging in place” philosophy revolve around keeping people’s home environments functional as long as possible.
Day programs are also important for clients who may be losing family support systems as they age. Many have lost parents and are in the care of sisters or brothers or state-appointed guardians.
Decker says one unique aspect of the new day care center is its integration of healthcare services along with its programs. “That’s not typically done,” he said.
The center is one of the biggest projects to be launched under the leadership of Decker, who has been with Eden for one year, but has been in the field of autism services for the past 30 years, most recently as COO of AHRC NY. He was familiar with children with developmental disabilities from a young age, having gone to a school in Amsterdam, New York, that was the first in the country to provide integrated education to students with and without disabilities. His parents were both former schoolteachers.
Tait is a veteran employee of Eden, having worked there for 19 years in various roles, first at the school, then with the adult programs. Tait didn’t start her career intending to serve autistic clients, and nothing in her family background pointed her in that direction — her father was a roofer. But as an undergraduate she took a job tutoring an autistic girl. Returning home to Morristown from school at Elizabethtown College, she happened to seen a sign advertising job openings at Eden and decided to apply. “It was very random,” she said.
Tait has been working on the idea for the adult day care center for the past two years and very intensively for the last six months. She said that with a growing number of clients, Eden had to expand its facilities anyway, and it only made sense to do so in a way that served a growing need in its population.
Decker and Tait now hope that Eden’s new facility will one day serve as a model that other organizations will follow in the future.
“We are not only improving lives of the people we support, but we are also developing practices that other providers can leverage to improve lives,” Decker says.
Schalks Crossing Day Center for Aging Adults, 10 Schalks Crossing Road, Suite 12, Plainsboro 08536. Rachel Tait, chief program officer. www.edenautism.org/schalks-crossing