I view caregiving for my Dad, Robert, who is 93 and a veteran of WWII (the 10th Mountain Division) and the Korean War, as an honor and privilege. I’m so grateful for his service to our country and I’m happy to be able to care for him as his Alzheimer’s slowly progresses. It can be both joyful and challenging to do so as his needs increase. I’ve learned that getting help and taking care of myself are crucial so that I can give him the care he deserves.
If you’re a family caregiver, you’ve likely learned that we often neglect ourselves as we focus on those we are caring for. Many caregivers feel it’s an overall positive experience, but they are also at higher risk for depression and more likely to rate their health as fair or poor compared to non-caregivers. I liken myself to my car — I don’t expect it to run on empty so why should I expect myself to? Accepting help and caring for ourselves is not selfish; it’s practical. And the good news is there is help for our veterans and for us.
How to find help
Regardless of the age of the veteran you care for, or their type of military service, Veterans Affairs (VA) offers vital support for veterans and their caregivers. We need a balance of these two types of support to prevent having a health crisis ourselves:
- Care and services directly for the veterans (or other loved ones) we care for, which ease our physical, mental, emotional and financial stress and free up our time.
- Caregiver support directly for us, the caregivers, which helps us cope, learn and take care of our own lives.
The VA system can be complicated and overwhelming, so I started with the VA Caregiver Support website www.caregiver.va.gov, which has so much great information that it can be a bit intimidating. So I called the VA Caregiver Support Line (1.855.260.3274) and talked with a live person who helped me understand the VA health benefits, services and eligibility requirements.
She connected me with our local VA Caregiver Support Coordinator, who helped me navigate the VA system to get Dad enrolled in VA health care and arrange for his services.
On Saturday, Nov. 11, across the country, we celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of our nation’s military veterans. Here are a few facts and figures to help bring awareness to the veteran population:
- Approximately 21.6 million veterans live in the U.S., roughly the entire population of the state of Florida.
- There are approximately 9 million enrollees in the VA Health Care System.
- In 2014, the nearly 7 million Vietnam War veterans made up the largest living group of veterans.
- Only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in WW II are alive today.
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Care and services for our veterans
My Dad now receives home-based primary care services from VA, which is much better for him, and as a working caregiver, it saves me time and stress too. Services include home visits from a nurse practitioner, a nurse who serves as his care coordinator, nutritional counseling, physical therapy and a home safety evaluation. VA also provides his medications, incontinence supplies and medical equipment, including a hospital bed, oxygen and a shower chair. VA contracts with local agencies to provide assistance with bathing, housekeeping and respite care.
Caregiving can also be financially depleting. Dad has no co-pay for any of his VA services (co-pays vary according to the veteran’s eligibility) and he also receives a Veterans Aid and Attendance pension benefit that helps pay for his care. That helps ease my financial strain because, like most caregivers, I use a great deal of my own money in caring for him. But VA can’t necessarily meet all of a veteran’s needs. Dad needs full 24/7 care, so we also pay for some professional caregivers to complement the VA services and our family care. I’m grateful that Dad also has long-term care insurance that helps, as well as his pensions from being a university professor.
Dad’s home-based primary care program incorporates mental health services, including counseling for my sisters and myself as we deal with the ups and downs of caregiving. In addition to the Caregiver Support Line mentioned above, VA caregiver supports include:
- Monthly Telephone Education Groups: Discuss self-care tips and ask questions.
- Peer Support Mentoring: One-on-one support from other caregivers of veterans from all eras.
- Building Better Caregivers: A free online course for family caregivers.
- Coaching into Care: Telephone support that helps caregivers find the best ways to encourage the veterans they care for to seek and accept treatment.
- Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers: Enhanced support for caregivers of veterans seriously injured in the line of duty on or after 9/11.
- Caregiver Self-care Guides: To help family caregivers deal with the stress of caregiving and care for ourselves.
Over the years of caring for Dad, one of the most rewarding and important roles my sisters and I have played is helping him remain connected to his military history. We’ve watched movies with him, enjoyed looking at his WWII memorabilia, visited museums and attended veterans group meetings together. Our interest in and respect for his military service has meant so much to him, reminding me that family caregiving isn’t just about health and financial care — it’s about caring for the whole person. And it’s about respecting and honoring them, especially our veterans who have been there for us and proudly served our country.
Thanks for your service, Dad. I’ll never forget it.
Amy Goyer, author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving, is an expert in aging and families, specializing in family caregiving. She is a consultant, speaker and writer and also serves as AARP’s Family & Caregiving Expert. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post. A passionate champion for caregivers, she has cared for her grandparents, sister, mom and now her dad, who has Alzheimer’s and lives with her. Find Amy on social media and at www.amygoyer.com.