‘Rescued by my angels’

Benny was sitting in his apartment talking about his journey to RHD Coastal Wellness, from living in a group home and being hospitalized at Ancora State Psychiatric Hospital before he was, in his words, “rescued by my angels.” He lives independently in his own apartment with support from staff like Life Skills Specialist Linda Bogan and Wellness Coach Matt Domino.

“Why did you pick me?” he asked. “Why did you do all this for me?”

“We’re a match made in heaven, Benny,” Bogan said.

“Me? This old man?” Benny said.

“You’re just getting started, Benny,” Domino said, with a laugh.

At 87 years old, Benny is not only the oldest client at RHD Coastal Wellness, a Residential Intensive Support Team (RIST) program that provides the holistic services needed to maintain independent living with community integration for individuals experiencing homelessness, chemical dependence, and mental illness. Benny is the oldest person in New Jersey living independently with support from a behavioral health provider.

“I can cook for myself, I can sleep when I want,” Benny said. “I listen to classical music. My life is better here.

“I appreciate what they do for me.”

RHD’s RIST model is based on a person-centered approach that responds to people’s strengths to create the best opportunity for maximizing positive individual commitment and responsibility. Like every RHD RIST program, Coastal Wellness works with a diverse population. Age is just one of the variables that mean RHD RIST staff has no “typical” client. Benny at 87 is the oldest; the youngest client is 19.

“Our staff has to be planful, they have to have the ability to show good judgement and flexibility when they’re working with our clients in the community,” RHD Coastal Wellness Director Kim Corbett said. “And Benny will test that occasionally – particularly with a younger staff.”

Domino is 26 years old; the 60-year age difference makes them look like a bit of an odd couple but Domino has been a good fit for Benny.

“With that kind of age difference, you always have some concerns about how younger staff will deal with a much older client like Benny — behaviorally, limit-setting, things like that,” Corbett said. “More importantly, to Benny 26 year olds are like children. He has to be able to respect his staff. With Matt, there’s respect. That’s a credit to Matt’s professionalism.”

“If it wasn’t for him … ” Benny said, and he just shrugs his shoulders and doesn’t finish his sentence. “He’s a whiz kid. I depend on him.”

Domino said the age difference in Benny’s case is just one element that RHD staff has to work through to meet people where they are.

“Communication skills are important with all our clients,” Domino said. “You have to figure out what works for them. Benny responds best when he’s able to make his own decisions, so I support him in going in the direction of what he needs. We have very different backgrounds, but we share some similarities.

“I’ve learned a lot from working with Benny. I’ve learned a lot of patience.”

Earlier this year, RHD staff helped Benny reunite with his older sister (she’s 92), who he hadn’t seen in 34 years. Benny builds model trains and was classically trained as a pianist.

He doesn’t play much these days (“I’m not good any more,” he said), but he regales Bogan and Domino with stories of the time he played Carnegie Hall. He snuck in when the place was empty and the lights were out.

“The only guy who heard me was the janitor,” Benny said. “But still …”

“He’s adapted very well to living independently,” Corbett said. “This is the best setting for him. Here, he decides. That’s part of the reason why it works — he gets to live according to his preferences, and we work with that.”