VA program supports caregivers

TAKING A TOLL:  Samantha Young suddenly became a caregiver to her husband after he was the victim of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Samantha Young
TAKING A TOLL: Samantha Young suddenly became a caregiver to her husband after he was the victim of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Samantha Young

When Samantha Young’s husband, Perry, was serving in Afghanistan in 2013, he was “blown up” by a suicide bomber, she says. He survived, but his spinal cord was damaged so badly that he was left quadriplegic.

Perry was flown to Germany for treatment and eventually landed at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa to begin the arduous process of piecing his life back together.

“He was really depressed — I mean, 21 years old and you’re a husband and a father, and all of a sudden you don’t have anything,” says Samantha, who moved to Hendersonville with her family four months ago. “He’s a military man, and he goes out in the front lines — he was infantry, the radio guy. It destroyed his whole identity.”

Life-altering injuries

Perry was discharged from the military the following year. He struggled with depression and, at times, with suicidal thoughts. And while the VA was providing medical support, Samantha was the primary emotional support for her traumatized husband.

“It took a toll on our marriage, on our lives,” she says. “Everything just flipped upside down.” Along with his medical care, Perry received counseling services from the Atlanta VA. And during those most difficult early days, Samantha also got help through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ caregiver support program.

Although the federal agency was already providing support for people taking care of veterans, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 formalized those services. The law, explains Penny James, co-director of the program at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, authorizes financial and psychological support for eligible caregivers — those caring for post-9/11 veterans whose injuries affect their ability to perform day-to-day tasks.

Patricia Kitlasz, the local program’s co-director, says lawmakers “came to the conclusion that it was not by divine intervention that veterans got here, dressed and fed breakfast appropriately for appointments — that there was someone at home, or even not at home sometimes, that actually assisted them with their care.”

Those caregivers are usually family members but may also be friends or neighbors. And the assistance they provide can be daunting, often demanding as many hours as a full-time job. They also shoulder an enormous emotional load, since their charges have experienced life-altering injuries.

Point of contact

The caregiver support program takes aim at both the logistical and soulful aspects of the task. Even assistance in navigating the VA system can be immensely helpful. Hendersonville resident Sasha Baxter, who’s been her fiance’s caregiver for the last year and a half, says the VA’s support “makes it a lot easier. If there’s issues with medication, or if he needs to see the doctor sooner than his appointment, or if he needs to change his group therapy, it gives me the opportunity to have that point of contact to say, ‘Hey, my vet needs this and that, can you please help me get this rolling?’”

More than anything, she continues, “It gives me a chance to have somebody who’s on my side, so I can have that support to be able to do what I need to do for him.”

The VA also offers counseling services for caregivers and a support hotline. “Being a caregiver is a full-time choice and can be quite exhaustive,” says Kitlasz. “I think many times caregivers need a place where they can just talk a little bit and process and share with someone how hard it is sometimes. This isn’t complaining, and it isn’t being negative — it’s just human nature that we need to process and we need to talk.”

Baxter echoes that sentiment. “My most important lesson is that I have to take care of myself in order to take care of him,” she explains. “If I’m not healthy, if I’m starting to get kind of burnt out, or I’m tired because he has nightmares and I’m getting up and going to work, trying to take care of myself, and then coming home, trying to take care of the house and him — if I’m not feeling OK, it makes it a lot harder. So knowing that I’m important, too, and that I’m here for him but I also need to make sure I have support, and I’m doing things that I like to do.”

The law specifies two distinct levels of assistance for caregivers: general, which gives them access to services, and comprehensive, which also includes financial support. When the law first took effect, Kitlasz recalls, there was some confusion about who was eligible for which benefits.

“When we started to accept people, it was difficult for folks to understand the criteria,” she says. “Of course people wanted the family caregiver program: It came with the added support of a stipend payment and insurance for the caregiver. Why wouldn’t you want that? Especially if you’ve been taking care of a veteran that was in the Gulf War, or a Vietnam veteran, and you’ve perhaps had to give up your employment.” Under the 2010 law, those veterans aren’t eligible.

Paradigm shift

Both co-directors see the program as part of a larger societal change. Kitlasz cites AARP data suggesting that one in five American adults is providing an average of 25 hours a week of care for a loved one.

James, meanwhile, says: “I think there’s been a huge paradigm shift in this country of looking at holistic kinds of care and understanding that we have an aging population. The biggest population ever of over-55s is here. It’s become bigger and bigger nationally as well as in the VA. So the focus has begun to be how do we assist folks to age in place. They want to be able to stay at home as long as they can, with the hope that they never have to enter a higher level of care.”

But for veterans like Perry Young, who may have a lot more years ahead, the question is how to make the most of them. Perry is now attending Fruitland Baptist Bible College in Henderson County; with Samantha’s help, he’s come to terms with his new life and has begun looking forward again.

She says her family is happy here, and her husband is now becoming a kind of care provider himself. “He wants to help guys deal with their grief up front, you know what I mean? The longer you put off grieving and accepting where you are, the more you miss out on life. Life can still be full and abundant.”

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About Sammy Feldblum
Sammy Feldblum is a journalist in WNC. He is on the hunt for hellbenders.

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