Navy veteran Ben Smet is a “sandwich generation” caregiver. He has shared custody of his two sons, 11 and 12, and takes care of his father, Kenneth, 77, who served in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot. He also directs a community outreach program at the University of South Florida and works with AARP Florida on veterans programs. Juggling it all has been tough.
The issues my dad faces are mental and emotional. He doesn't thrive outside in the world. He can be quite combative and stubborn.
I thought when I asked him to come live with me, if he was exposed to his grandkids, it would perk him up, but I quickly learned that wasn't going to work.
We're all in a two-bedroom house. I gave him my bedroom so he had his space. I sleep on the couch. I take my kids’ room when they're with my ex-wife.
My dad eats in his bed, by choice. I cook his meals and grocery shop.
It's difficult going back and forth between my dad and my sons. One minute I'm trying to be patient and give him the love and care he needs. Then the other minute I'm taking care of my young men.
I hope I'm offering them an extremely valuable lesson on how we treat other human beings, especially family. We talk about what Grandpa's going through and his struggles, and the dignity that everyone deserves.
I participated in AARP Florida's caregiving conference in 2017, on the panel that featured men caring for family members in non-stereotypical ways. AARP also sponsored a Welcome Home event for Vietnam veterans, and an Honoring Heroes ceremony. AARP outreach to veterans has been very important in our area and to me.
If you're caring for a veteran who is service-connected disabled, 10 percent or above, there are benefits that you can get access to through the VA's family caregiver program (caregiver.va.gov), including training and networks to plug into.
I do qualify for some benefits from the VA program. I just have not had the time to navigate it yet, choosing instead to focus on getting my dad directly into the VA for outpatient treatment and support.
I know my dad, who served his country honorably, is off the street, has a roof over his head and is fed.
As long as I'm alive on this planet, I'm going to help those who served like I did to reintegrate into society as best as they can. That's why I do it. I just think we, I, owe them that, and I need it sometimes, too.
So, in order to ask for that help from other veterans, I want to be able to say that I've helped veterans, too.
— As told to Michelle Cerulli McAdams
AARP Florida is working with the National Association of Veterans and Families, based in Jacksonville, Fla., to get the word out about veterans benefits that can help family caregivers.