PITTSBURGH – Early one morning, after yet another nightmare, Clara Hopson pushed the quilt off her small frame and shuffled down the hall.

The 85-year-old, who has an intellectual disability and trouble getting around, wept as she approached Bernadette Obermeier’s bedside and slipped under the blanket.

“I said, ‘Come in bed with me,'” Obermeier recalled. “We’re not going to let anything happen to you.”

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Hopson and Elaine Ciccotelli, 66, live in Obermeier’s Whitehall home as part of Lifesharing, a family-living program that offers an alternative to a group home setting for people with intellectual disabilities. Ciccotelli has been there since 2008; Hopson moved in four years later.

Lifesharing began in Pennsylvania in 1982 with one family in Berks County. Today, more than 1,500 individuals with disabilities participate statewide. In Allegheny County alone, 11 organizations – including Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, Pressley Ridge and Milestone Center – currently oversee 67 people with intellectual disabilities living in Lifesharing homes, ranging in age from 13 to 89.

“It’s not just a job” for the providers, said Brenda Bulkoski, an administrator in the county human services Office of Intellectual Disability. “It’s fostering a relationship.”

That’s true for Obermeier, 62, who spent her career as a behavioral therapist working, in part, in group homes. She said she viewed the decision to become a Lifesharing provider as a natural extension of her work.

“I’ve been around these guys for half my life,” she said. “We have such fun.”

Many don’t realize that despite their disabilities, participants in the Lifesharing program often have a great sense of humor, she said. Ciccotelli, who often quips, “What’s up, girlfriend?” to visitors, has DVDs of “The Three Stooges” stacked next to her TV in her bedroom.

One recent evening, the family gathered in the living room to watch a Christmas movie as the scent of a peppermint candle wafted through the room. Obermeier said it was a welcome change from yet another episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which is Hopson’s favorite show.

Ciccotelli sat in a recliner with one one of the three cats that share the home while Obermeier’s 4-year-old great-nephew, Brian, cozied up next to Hopson, who was wrapped in a blanket on the couch.

“Want some lipstick?” the 4-year-old asked, dabbing a tube of Chapstick on Hopson’s lips.

A few days a week, Obermeier’s niece, Heather Slaczka, 41, takes the women to her Turtle Creek home to spend the day. Hopson has developed a special bond with Brian, Slaczka’s son, and calls him “Cookie.” When Brian was an infant, Ciccotelli pushed his stroller during walks.

There have been challenges. It took Hopson a while to trust Obermeier. She had lived with a Lifesharing family since the 1980s and moved in with Obermeier when the other family relocated out of state. She still has nightmares about her deceased twin sister, and Obermeier can sometimes hear her crying through a monitor in her room.

“I love her,” Hopson said of Obermeier. “I’m happy here.”

Having lived previously with her relatives, Ciccotelli was new to the program when she arrived and had to adjust to living in a new home with several pets.

The program at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, which works with Obermeier, serves 19 people with developmental or intellectual disabilities in 13 homes in Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette and Washington counties. Sue Troyan, Lifesharing coordinator for Pittsburgh Mercy Intellectual Disabilities Services, said many participants lived with families who “for one reason or another, were unable to care for (them).”

Lifesharing providers, she said, “help the individual with their basic living skills, they help them fulfill their emotional needs, spiritual needs, their day-to-day living needs. They’re there for everything.”

By contrast, the county said, group home facilities of three or more people with disabilities can be more costly and, with multiple staff members, offer less consistency than Lifesharing homes, though some do thrive in that environment. Lifesharing providers receive $130 a day from a combination of state and federal dollars.

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