This past January, Garry Nims and Patrick Belcher became roommates. Patrick, who is 30 years old, looks after Garry, 72. Patrick helps Garry with transportation, cooking and other tasks.
And the two of them often hang out together. Garry says he's really connected with Patrick, who had worked as a care provider in a group home for several years.
"We're good friends with each other, Patrick and I have been," Garry said.
Garry and Patrick were brought together by a new program called Rumi, launched last summer by Bridges Minnesota. The company operates group and other homes for people with intellectual, developmental and other disabilities whose incomes are low enough to qualify for the state to pay for their care.
Rumi uses the internet to match people who have physical or mental handicaps with roommates who are also caregivers. It's a model that can provide substantial financial benefits for caregivers, more choice and independence for the disabled and significant financial savings for the state.
Garry said he is free to do what he wants, and he's living in his longtime home in south Minneapolis.
"Lived in the same house for 53 years," he said. "I love this place."
Patrick said that he and Garry took to each other quickly.
"It's been going pretty good," he said. "We haven't had any snags at all. I don't watch TV a whole lot, and I got the feeling that Garry had to share his TV before, so I think we're loving that relationship."
Blake Elliott, vice president of disability services at Bridges Minnesota, said about 19,000 Minnesotans live in group homes for the disabled — but that arrangement is not a good fit for everyone. And it's often hard to find openings in group homes.
With Rumi, interested caregivers undergo criminal and other background checks. Then prospective roommates check out each other's profiles and preferences online. They follow up with face-to-face meetings with possible matches. If a caregiver and a person needing care figure they would be a good fit, Rumi helps them iron out living and financial arrangements, care plans and other details.
In a typical group home, four disabled people live together with 24-hour care or supervision. With Rumi, Elliot said, care can be tailored to an individual's needs, potentially saving the state millions of dollars a year in subsidies.
The roommate model also pays off better for caregivers, who earn about $12.50 an hour on average in Minnesota. Pairing caregivers with disabled roommates lets them both split housing costs. And it boosts caregivers' incomes, thanks to federal tax law. Elliot said caregivers leasing or renting an apartment or home with the person in their care are not subject to income taxes for that work.
"That's a huge financial difference from a compensation standpoint that we hope and we think ultimately yields a higher quality of caregiver that is more experienced, more trained, more professional, more committed to staying in this arrangement for a longer time period," he said.
Winna Bernard, a Washington County social worker, said a client of hers has thrived since he got a roommate.
"It's like night and day," she said. "He's just so happy. He is just doing fabulous and he'll be able to stay in this home now as long as he wants, which is somewhat rare in our world."
Bernard said it's a big deal for the disabled to be able to develop a long-term relationship with a caregiver. Another important benefit is that the disabled get to make more decisions about their lives.
"Where do you want to live?" she said. "Who do you want to live with? Do you want pets? These are questions that folks don't get asked. It's usually: 'Here's a spot. What do you think?'"
The state of Minnesota believes the Rumi approach has a lot going for it.
"This is certainly a model that we want to see," said Alex Bartolic, director for disability services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
"We've done research around the country and have found that models like this have been highly effective, particularly for people who haven't always wanted to live with other people, where that has not been the best setting for them," she said.
Rumi has connected two dozen roommates so far and hopes to match as many more the rest of this year.