Caregiving is like a delicate puzzle as we piece together care for our loved ones — all the support never comes from one place. Veterans Affairs (VA) has become a crucial puzzle piece for my 93-year-old dad, Robert, a World War II and Korean War veteran who has Alzheimer's disease. VA offers many benefits and services for veterans and their caregivers. Sure, it's a complicated system to navigate sometimes, but it's absolutely worth the effort.
Dad had never used any of the benefits or health care he was eligible for until he began needing 24-hour care, several years ago. I started with the VA's Aid and Attendance benefits and have gradually obtained additional services and supports for him. It's a huge help with his budget.
If you're a veteran or caring for one, these benefits and services may be available (more information about eligibility is on the VA website).
- Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support. www.caregiver.va.gov or 855-260-3274 (toll-free). I've called VA Caregiver Support about how to get started with benefits and services (and now whenever I get lost in the VA maze). The representatives were helpful and connected me with a local caregiver support coordinator who assisted me in locating the medical center and services in our area. Your support coordinator is a good person to call when you hit roadblocks.
- Pension, Aid and Attendance and Housebound Benefits. As a veteran, you or your loved one may be eligible for certain financial benefits. For example, because Dad served during eligible wartime periods, he can receive financial assistance to help pay for his care through the Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits program. The application can take at least several months to process (it took a full year to finally receive benefits, but they were retroactive from the date the application was submitted).
Some businesses will offer to help you apply for Aid and Attendance and/or Housebound benefits, but charge a fee for their services. Instead, ask the VA about their recognized experts that help veterans with the application for free, or ask your estate planning or elder care attorney for assistance (ours gave it for no fee).
- Services. These can include physical, occupational and speech therapy; social workers to help coordinate care; mental health care; adult day health services; home-based personal care; light housekeeping; respite care; hospice care; health care or telehealth. All of these services are especially helpful for caregivers. Most are free or available at a very reduced cost, depending on what you or your veteran qualifies for.
I've learned so much about how to work with VA to maximize available support for my dad. Here are a few of my hard-earned tips.
1. Stay positive, and be patient. Yes, the VA system can be complicated, and sometimes you don't get help right away. But I've found that everyone I've interacted with, from the call center reps to the doctors, really wants to help. They all have heavy workloads, since there are so many veterans to help. Give them patience and understanding, and you're more likely to get the same in return.
2. Document everything. I have learned to take detailed notes about every conversation and appointment because multiple calls are usually needed, and sometimes one department isn't aware of what another has done or can do. I need to be able to connect the dots. I then follow up to make sure all steps are taken and no balls are dropped.
3. Always ask if there are other services available. I keep finding out about additional benefits or services for Dad. For example, the social worker, not the doctor, informed me that we could be provided with certain incontinence supplies. And the pharmacist told me about other available assistance that the social worker wasn't aware of. Just keep asking questions.
4. Never give up. Someone at VA told me recently that "the squeaky wheel does get the grease," and I have definitely found this to be true. There was a lot of red tape with Dad's Aid and Attendance benefits application, but I persisted, and now he gets a monthly stipend to help pay for his care. I tried to set up respite care and help with bathing two years ago, but the VA's local contractor did not work out (they wouldn't provide respite care on Saturdays, when I really needed it). Honestly, I gave up after two tries. But several months ago I decided to try again, and with the new contractor it's been so much easier to arrange care. It's wonderful to have the extra help from VA.
Amy Goyer is AARP's Family and Caregiving Expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. A recognized media authority, she has appeared on Today, The Doctors and Dr. Phil, and had interviews in The Wall Street Journal and People. Connect with Amy on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and amygoyer.com.