DELEVAN — For the past 25 years, Esther and Nick Burns have opened their home to strangers in need and made them family.
The Burns’ home is one of two licensed in Cattaraugus County as Family-Type Home for Adults (FTHA). These private homes provide an atmosphere of family living for adults who are unable to live on their own.
The Burns estimate they have cared for about 55 residents over the past quarter century.
“That person is going to be part of your life, and you are going to be part of their life,” Mrs. Burns said.
Cattaraugus County Department of Social Services administers the program in the county and can provide more information about how to apply as a provider.
The Burns presently have four residents living them. Joe, 74, is a Vietnam veteran and has lived with the Burns for four years. Larry, 75, is a retired heavy equipment operator and has lived with the Burns for six years. John, 71, who was previously institutionalized, has been with the burns for 13 years. Gerard, 63, is deaf and has lived with the family for more than 20 years.
“It’s rewarding, though; the stories, the history, the extended family,” Burns said, noting that families of past residents still keep in contact.
The Burns are licensed to take four residents and two boarders. But homes can take only one, if that’s what works best and that’s all the home can accommodate.
Before welcoming someone to their home, the Burns prefer to meet the person first. Over the years, the Burns have decided they only take men and, if possible, invite them to visit their home so all parties can decide if the placement works.
Taking in a resident through the program is a commitment of time and energy, the Burns said. The adults require constant supervision, that’s why it’s been two years since they’ve left the house together. The couple’s adult daughter helps out providing supervision when needed.
“I never go to the grocery store without someone,” Mrs. Burns said.
The Burns help their extended family with taking medications, use medical equipment like nebulizers and oxygen and do everyday tasks like prepare meals and drive to appointments. Burns said there are many things to consider when contemplating an addition to the family. One is location of your home. Are you within walking distance to a store or near a church if a resident is religious?
Other things a host family may need to consider are pets. Does the prospective resident like animals? Also, if you have kids, will the adult be able to tolerate that?
Getting these types of questions answered will help ensure a new addition will blend with your family,” Mrs. Burns said.
Burns likes to reach out to other family members of prospective residents to get some insight.
“It is scary when someone new moves in,” she said. “So I think disclosure is really important.”
Burns said her most important role is that of advocate when she takes her residents to medical appointments. She accompanies all her residents to medical appointments.
The Burns were raising their children and both working when they opened their home to care for other adults.
“I don’t know how we did it then, but I was younger then,” Mrs. Burns said.
The couple does receive compensation for their work, which is paid by the residents, typically through their Social Security income.
Burns’ mother, Esther Kelley, 85, started taking in adults in the mid-1960s. Kelley opened her home to others for 38 years before the Burns bought the house to carry on the tradition.
When Kelley started, she owned a home next door near the corner of Route 16 and Olmstead Avenue, which was the oldest house in Delevan at the time. When her family outgrew the old house, a mobile home was put in next door on Olmstead.
Mrs. Burns’ older brother lived in the old house, and Kelley said she had taken up to 14 additional residents at one point between the two households. The mobile home was destroyed by fire and the current house was built. The old original house was demolished.
“I like the people, and I like doing it,” said Kelley, who had worked at the Cattaraugus County Nursing Home in Machias. She has a close family and she draws strength from her faith.
“Growing up around this, we always felt like we just had a lot of grandparents around,” Burns said.
When Burns’ parents retired in 1995, she and her husband bought her parent’s house to continue the family tradition.
“It takes a certain kind of person to do this,” Mr. Burns said.
If you are a person who goes out of your way to help others, this may be an opportunity, the Burns’ said. If you enjoyed being a parent and are experiencing “empty nester syndrome,” this program may be a solution, the couple said.
For the Burns, they also see it as a way to pay forward.
“We’re going to get old someday, too,” Mrs. Burns said. “And we hope someone will be nice to us.”
(Rick Jozwiak is a Cattaraugus County Child Protective Services caseworker and a former Times Herald news reporter and editor.)