Veterans Rely on Family Caregivers to Retain Independence

U.S. Veterans have fought long and hard to preserve our nation’s freedom. When they return to American soil, many are left with injuries or PTSD that makes it difficult to return to society in the way they once knew — supporting their families and providing an invaluable service to the county. Aging Veterans grapple with the effects of aging and chronic illness. When you’re used to the rest of the nation relying on your strength and heroism, accepting the idea that you now have to rely on someone else is a difficult reality to face. It’s thanks to the dedicated family caregivers that our nation’s Veterans are able to maintain some semblance of the independence and free spirit with which they’ve come to identify themselves.

U.S. Veterans and their caregivers need our support

There are currently more than 9.7 million living Veterans age 65 and older. In a 2010 National Survey of Veterans conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 21.3 percent of Veterans have applied for VA disability compensation and just 26.8 percent have ever enrolled in VA healthcare. On disability compensation, 66.2 percent say they don’t have a service-related disability — but that still leaves 12.5 percent of Veterans who could potentially take advantage of these benefits but haven’t. And perhaps more shocking, 42.3 percent of Veterans say they weren’t aware there is a VA healthcare benefit.

Veterans aren’t the only ones who need help, however. In addition to the costs of living and healthcare, many family caregivers caring for an injured or ill Veteran are juggling the responsibilities of holding a full-time job while still trying to meet their loved ones’ needs. While there have been some attempts at providing support to Veteran caregivers, the main benefit offered — a monthly stipend — is available only to Veterans who served post-9/11. That means there are hundreds of thousands of aging Veterans whose family members are left struggling to support their families and find a means to provide care. Many Vitenam Veterans, for instance, are now suffering from chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis.

Existing benefits aren’t available to everyone

There are some strides being made, but financial concerns have so far prevented any real expansion of the program. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed a bill in July that would expand coverage to Veterans from all eras and generations as well as expand the types of disabilities that would qualify a Veteran to receive the benefit. Studies estimate that between 32,000 and 88,000 Veterans who served prior to 9/11 would be able to participate in the program, with cost estimates between $25,000 and $36,770 per person. Congress is hesitant to push forward, first because it’s a new benefit that they feel hasn’t yet proven its value, and second, because the Senate simply can’t find the resources to fund it.

For now, most aging Veterans who could use this extra support rely on VA disability benefits (if they’re even aware they exist) and Social Security benefits to try to get by. Spouses sometimes have to work full or part-time jobs on top of their caregiving duties in order to support their families. In some cases, aging Veterans simply require too much care and can’t be left alone, leaving spouses no option other than to quit their jobs to care for their loved ones full-time. For these families, it seems like a no-win situation.

The good news is Congress is aware that there’s an unmet need, and advocacy groups are doing their best to push legislation forward that will provide much-needed help to older Veterans and their caregivers — but for some, it’s too little, too late. Check out the VA Caregiver Support website from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to learn more about the programs available to support family caregivers of aging Veterans.

We want to hear your opinions. Is Congress doing enough to support our nation’s Veterans? What programs have you found helpful, and what’s missing in the available services for Veteran family caregivers?

Image via Flickr by xalamay

Post by Angela Stringfellow

Senior Advisor

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