WALLA WALLA — “At the end of the day, they’re really just two guys living in this house.”
With a broad smile and upturned palms, Jim Hough characterized the situation in the East Walla Walla home shared by his brother, Brian Hough, and Mark Nibbler.
“They want to hang out in their boxers, be on their computers and eat chili mac. It’s not just disability guys doing that. You have laundry on the floor (to be sorted) and the category is ‘dirty.’ Sorting is unnecessary. They’re guys.”
Despite Jim’s summation, the house of two young men living with developmental disabilities is remarkably tidy and not on just this day, moms Carla Nibler and Teri Hough agreed, nodding heads at one another.
Brian’s obsessive-compulsive disorder — one component of his disability — helps keep a tight ship, both environmentally and socially, even when he tries to over-manage his housemate’s life.
In turn, Mark’s knack of letting things roll off his back adds a calming influence. And, at the end of the day, the longtime friends make this experiment sustainable, their mothers agree.
Brian, blond and gregarious, has known Mark, dark-haired and quieter, most of his life. When the boys were 3 years old, Teri and Carla saw each other at various functions of Parent to Parent, where Teri was coordinator at the time.
The organization, under the umbrella of Walla Walla County, gives parents and families of special needs children support in a number of ways.
Not that Carla thought Mark really fit into the same category as Brian, who was born with Down syndrome. Her son, she thought, would be on track developmentally once his ability to talk kicked in.
“Well, with Teri’s patience and me finally waking up, I realized Mark wasn’t like the other kids his age. His lack of language skills was now accompanied by whirling toilets, flapping arms, staring into space and more,” she said.
The diagnosis was autism and the oldest Nibler child — as did Brian — wended his way through the services available in Walla Walla, including those provided by the School District.
Mark eventually moved in with his aunt to begin transitioning to a more independent lifestyle, Carla said. And Brian stayed at home, taking classes at Walla Walla Community College for his own enrichment, using the Valley Transit bus system, learning housekeeping skills and trying employment after graduation.
Their sons continued to interact with each other since toddlerhood, Teri and Carla said. Special Olympics, movie nights, school activities … all served to build the bond between the buddies.
About two years ago, Mark, 24, and Brian, 25, were beginning to show signs of being ready to fly the nest.
“We always intended for Brian to live outside the home,” Teri said.
“It’s normal,” Brian added.
“I was slower to come to this point,” Carla said with a laugh. “The way I’m slower to come to everything. I didn’t think he was capable of being that independent. But it became more and more obvious Mark was capable and that it was the right thing to do.”
Neither family was attracted to the typical group-home concept, Teri said, listing a number of things that would not suit them, including working around staffing schedules. Which means a loss of freedom within a family to “steal” their own for the day or more on a whim. “You have some control over your kid’s life, but less.”
If his brother was in a group-living situation, it would change their relationship to a degree, Jim noted. “I couldn’t just come over and hang and have a barbecue the way I do here.”
Yet putting each boy in a one-to-one roommate situation could also have pitfalls. Personalities have to work and that goes for more than the roomies, Carla pointed out.
“Teri and I were fairly confident that our boys would be compatible. The next thing to discuss was Teri’s and my compatibility in this venture,” Carla said. “I think it’s fair to say we’re both pretty … strong … personalities.”
Walla Walla doesn’t have a large pool of potential roommates to draw from, either, so it’s gravy that Brian and Mark have taken to their living arrangement, Teri said.
Not without a learning curve for all that’s included some plumbing mishaps, a little tattling through text messaging and adjusting to each other’s ticks. Brian is uncomfortable when Mark’s time to go back home for the weekend changes, for example. “It might mean he has to share his Friday night pizza,” Teri explained with a smile. “Normally it’s all his.”
Mark, on the other hand, has been introduced to foods he once shunned and never seems to grow tired of Brian’s “rules and regulations,” Teri said.
Rent and communal living costs are shared, paid for out of Social Security disability checks. The house is staffed on and off during the day, also a shared expense.
While the friends make their own breakfast every day, Jim’s wife Amanda comes in to help the men with a number of chores, including teaching Brian how to use a crock pot. Her title is personal care provider on paper, but “sister-in-law” works just as well, Amanda said.
“As far as this house goes, I’m tech support,” Jim chimed in, heading off to hook up Mark’s new printer.
Deborah Prior, an alternative living provider, helps in a multitude of ways. Signs of her work include the two calendars on the kitchen wall. One is a chore keeper — “change sheets” on this day and “Brian laundry” on that. Another calendar helps Mark and Brian keep track of medical and other appointments, as well as track food choices for Mark, to help him avoid meal ruts, Prior explained.
Preprinted grocery lists allow Mark to record “Pop Tarts” and “bean and cheese burritos.” Brian has his own choices written down, although his struggle to keep his weight under control dictates that to a degree.
“Because Mark eats whatever he wants and weighs one pound and Brian is getting the 100-calorie cookie packs,” Teri said.
Which he has coupons for, because her son is king of the coupon collectors, she added.
As head of Walla Walla County’s Developmental Disabilities office, Hough encourages families to plan for the future and what it will look like for their disabled son or daughter. “I talk about ways to live independently. There are all kinds of ways to do so and we want people to think about doing it. And be creative.”
It was the logical move for his brother, Jim said. “Moving out isn’t just about living away from your parents, it’s about getting out and doing things.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.