Caregiving is like a delicate puzzle as we piece together care for our loved ones — all the support never comes from one place. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) became a crucial puzzle piece for my late father, Robert, a World War II and Korean War veteran who had Alzheimer's disease.
The 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 never used any of the benefits or health care he was eligible for as a veteran until he needed hearing aids. Later, I applied for VA Aid and Attendance (A&A) benefits and gradually obtained additional services and supports for him.
Eventually, he needed 24-hour care. His VA benefits and services were a huge help with his budget.
VA programs caregivers should know about
If you're a veteran or caring for one, these benefits and services may be available. Mmore information about eligibility is on the VA website.
VA Caregiver Support. I started my search for information about benefits and services by calling VA's caregiver support line, 855-260-3274, and returned to those representatives whenever I got lost in the bureaucratic maze.
They were helpful and connected me with a local caregiver support coordinator who assisted me in locating the VA 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, your loved one may be eligible for certain financial benefits. Because Dad served during eligible wartime periods and met other age, financial and health criteria, he qualified for the A&A program, which offers financial help for veterans to pay for long-term care.
A&A and a related pension enhancement for aging and ailing veterans, the Housebound allowance, have distinct qualification criteria related to the recipient's physical condition and capabilities. The programs are aimed at veterans in financial need and also restrict eligibility based on income and assets.
Applications can take several months to process. In Dad's case it took a full year before he finally started receiving benefits. But if those benefits are approved, they are retroactive to the date the application was submitted.
Some businesses offer help in applying for A&A or a Housebound allowance, but they charge a fee for their services. Beware of shady financial advisers who try to talk veterans into risky financial moves that will supposedly help them get these extra benefits, a scam called “pension poaching.”
Instead, ask the VA about its recognized expert providers, known as veteran service organizations (VSOs), that help veterans with the application for free. Or ask your estate planning or elder care lawyer for assistance — ours helped me for no fee.
You can search the VA's online directory of accredited VSOs to find one near you.
Health and caregiver services. For the last year of his life, Dad received home-based primary care, which was a game changer for us and made caring for him so much easier for everyone.
Other services veterans may receive include these:
- Adult day health care services
- Health care or telehealth
- Hospice care
- Light housekeeping
- Mental health care
- Personal care
- Physical, occupational and speech therapy
- Respite care
- Social workers to help coordinate care
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 loved one qualify for.
4 keys to working with the VA
I learned so much about how to work with the 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 found that everyone I interacted with — from the call center reps to the doctors — really wants to help. They all have heavy workloads because so many veterans need help.
Give them patience and understanding and you're more likely to get the same in return.
2. Document everything. I learned to take detailed notes about every conversation and appointment because multiple calls were usually needed, and sometimes one VA office isn't aware of what another has done or can do.
I needed to be able to connect the dots. I then followed up to make sure all steps were taken and no balls were dropped.
3. Always ask if other services are available. I kept 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 once that “the squeaky wheel does get the grease,” and I definitely found this to be true.
Dad's A&A application was mired in a lot of red tape, but I persisted, and ultimately he started getting a monthly stipend to help pay for his care.
Here's another example: At one point I tried to set up respite care and arrange help with Dad's bathing, 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 more than a year later I decided to try again, and with a new contractor it was much easier to arrange care.
Overall, the benefits Dad received were crucial supports both for him and for me and the rest of his caregiving team. I can't imagine how we would have maintained his care without them.
Editor's note: This article, originally published in November 2016, has been updated to include new information and to reflect the passing of Amy's father in 2018.