Adults with Developmental Disabilities: Unique Aging Challenges

By Sarah Pitts, Elder Law Clinic Student, Fall 2015

Before I came to law school, I worked as direct care staff and day program staff for adults with developmental disabilities. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs I have ever had. I learned to live and work with people who had various talents, interests, and abilities. I met one lady who lacked most of her fine motor skills but could tell me in a matter of seconds the day of the week that corresponded with any date past or future with perfect accuracy from memory. I took many trips to Logan Airport with another woman who enjoyed watching the planes take off and wonder where they were going. One of my clients loved to imitate the Three Stooges and had the most contagious laugh. I became very close to some of my clients, and I grew to care deeply about issues that concerned the folks I worked with.

Aging is an issue that affects us all, but it affects adults with developmental disabilities in distinct ways. The normal aging process is often compounded by reduced mobility, poorer general health, medications, surgeries, and other concerns. Those with developmental disabilities are at a higher risk of developing chronic health conditions at younger ages than other adults, owing to biological factors related to syndromes and associated disabilities. They may also have difficulty accessing adequate healthcare because of environmental and communication challenges. Additionally, as their close family members grow older, it may become harder to provide much needed care and support, either at home or in community living situations. The needs of adults with developmental disabilities tend to be unique to each person, and long-term care facilities are often ill-equipped to handle individual needs.

There is hope, however. People with developmental disabilities are living longer than ever before and have better access to health care than had past generations. Doctors and caregivers are learning more and more about how aging specifically effects this population, and they are increasingly aware of how medications interact. Because many individuals already qualify for Medicare and Medicaid, finances are usually not a problem for long term care.

Some pre-planning will further ease the aging process for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families and caregivers, including: (1) effective guardianship and a plan for what will occur when a guardian is unable to support their loved one; (2) preparing long-term care facilities for caring for adults with developmental disabilities; and (3) training families and caregivers regarding unique challenges facing the aging developmental disability population.