Monroe, LA – In the early 2000s, Sharon Elias and her sisters found themselves in a hopeless situation. Their mother’s health declined due to Alzheimer’s disease, and she needed special care. Unfortunately, the debilitating illness of their mother left a void because she was the primary caretaker of Jo Ellen Birmingham, Elias’ eldest sister. Fortunately for Birmingham’s health condition, Mrs. Cantrell had the foresight to seek quality care and support with the assistance of Northeast Delta Human Service Authority’s (NEDHSA) Department for people with Intellectual/Development Disabilities (I/DD) for her eldest daughter, Birmingham, and Elias.
After contacting NEDHSA’s I/DD Department, it was determined that Birmingham was eligible to participate in a Medicaid Waiver Program with services that include case management, personal care services, respite support, vocational support, environmental modifications, and specialized medical equipment in addition to her state plan Medicaid services.
Birmingham was born with Cerebral Palsy, a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. As a result, Birmingham is entirely reliant on a wheelchair to move around within her home and the community. She has the aid of full-time caregivers to assist her in activities of daily living and to access her community.
Elias said becoming the primary caregiver for her older sister came naturally.
“Well, we were so close. There was never any difference. We all helped to take care of Jo,” Elias said. “It was never any burden. I don’t call Jo a burden. I call her an angel.”
Elias’ devotion to her sister is infinite, but the required financial, caregiving and mental support are limited. So making contact with NEDHSA for information and assistance with connecting Ms. Birmingham to the services she needed is something the family had to do.
“We knew that mother was getting sick and could not take care of her (Jo) safely,” Elias said. “Mother didn’t want us to stop our lives, which none of us felt that way, but my mother was determined that Jo was going to be taken care of, and she was going to see to it that she was going to be taken care of.”
Medical Certification Supervisor for the regional Waiver Unit at NEDHSA, Michelle Conti, recalled meeting Birmingham and her mother years ago when Birmingham was first considering waiver services.
“[Her mother] supported Jo Ellen for many years and was starting to need more assistance,” Conti said. “I’m grateful that we were able to connect her to the waiver services that improved her living situation.”
Birmingham, Elias and their family were more than pleased with the services NEDHSA’s Department of Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities helped them establish through the waiver program. Elias said she felt “at ease with the services provided to Birmingham’s care from the beginning of the relationship.”
“It’s wonderful what they do for the ones that can’t provide for themselves, that are in need,” Elias said. “It helps families too to take the burden off. I know I could not have provided all of this for Jo. My husband and I would try, but we could not provide for her and her needs.”
Other resources provided for Birmingham’s care included adult undergarments, hearing aids, a telephone to help Birmingham hear, assistance with wheelchair functionality, and repairs to the wheelchair lift on Birmingham’s van.
Regarding personal support, Elias spoke highly of the NEDSHA Developmental Disability staff, especially Medical Certification Specialist Sondre Swan.
“She has always lifted me up when I am down and is helpful,” Elias said. “She goes out of her way to make someone feel good and laugh, and that it’s not as bad as we think. She advised me on certain things and followed up with me.”
Swan, who has been working with Birmingham for the last 15 years, said she prides herself on “making the family, and individual, feel comfortable communicating with me.”
“I began communicating with Mrs. Elias on Ms. Jo’s behalf due to her situation,” Swan said. “As a result, rapport occurred early in our dealings.”
When Elias becomes overwhelmed and questions what to do next, she said Swan steps in, calms her down, and tells her, “We can handle this.”
Elias added: “NEDHSA is an excellent organization with great people and services. I highly recommend NEDHSA. NEDHSA’s team is so easy to talk with. I feel like they are all my friends.”
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