Civilians across America are opening their hearts and homes to elderly veterans.
As an alternative to nursing homes, the Department of Veterans Affairs program Medical Foster Home - Where Heroes Meet Angels matches caring Americans with elderly veterans needing daily assistance due to disabling or chronic conditions.
Many veterans' lives have been vastly improved by the move into a caregiver's home. At 85, veteran Fred Gaertner could no longer live independently. Caregiver Moinir Marzouk and his wife stepped in. Fred told the St. Paul Pioneer Press deciding to move in was, "Just like when you met your wife. You knew that this was going to be the one."
Colleen Orde wanted to utilize her caregiving skills and took in a 57-year-old disabled female veteran who was languishing in a nursing home. Orde told the Pioneer Press, "She was just existing—going down the halls like a ghost. Now it's like she's come alive."
For these veterans in the foster care program, their new residences are more than houses, they are homes. And the people who care for them are more than caregivers, they are family.
Started in 2000 as a pilot program in Little Rock, Arkansas, Heroes Meet Angels has expanded to 31 sites in 21 states—with 67 sites in some phase of implementation. This expansion is in large part due to the dedication of Dr. Thomas Edes, the Department of Veterans Affairs director of home and community-based care.
Although confident in the team that started the program, Dr. Edes was initially concerned about the vulnerability of elderly veterans. And, as he says, “In this program, the caregiver is getting paid.”
Essentially, individual veterans pay the caregiver for room and board and their 24/7 personal assistance. The VA is there to provide necessary medical care. The average amount paid to caregivers is approximately $2,000 to $3,000 per month. However, Dr. Edes says, “Most of these veterans qualify for social security and most have also reached a level of disability that the VA will provide them with benefits. Through those financial assistance services, the veteran often has the funds for the program.”
To ensure the program was working, Dr. Edes flew to Little Rock and made unannounced visits to 23 of the 28 veterans in foster homes at that time. He says, “Those days changed my life. What I saw in the homes was every single veteran was getting excellent care. All of the caregivers' hearts were in it. They were doing this because they really wanted to improve the life of someone else.”
Gayle Haynes is one of these people. A caretaker at heart, she heard about the Medical Foster Home program and immediately signed up. In March of this year, veteran Arthur Williams moved in.
Williams is as he says, “68 years young,” and has spent “20 years, 29 days and eight hours” in the U.S. Air Force. He was living with his daughter before entering the program. Due to his health problems, his daughter was concerned about him being home alone most of the day.
When Medical Foster Home was suggested, Williams said, “I’m the type to go see what it’s like. If I like it, I like it. If I don’t, I don’t. I have the choice. Once I came here and saw it, I was ready.”
Two months in, and Williams says, “You couldn’t find a better place.”
Haynes is happy with the living situation as well. "I like it because I like helping people," she says. "And Mr. Williams is just like family. He’s so much like family.”
One of their favorite things to do is sit and chat. Haynes, with the help of her husband—also a veteran—makes Williams his breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Haynes says, “Mr. Williams likes sherbet” for his evening snack. He also enjoys going to the Senior Citizen’s Center. “I go Tuesdays and Fridays," he says. "That’s my pinnacle day.”
Two more veterans have recently moved in. So far, they both say it's going well. Williams says, “It’s like one big family.”
According to Dr. Edes, this is the case for every veteran and caregiver he has met in the program. “Everyone has been very appreciative of the opportunity to serve a veteran. This fulfills an important part in their life.”
When members of Congress came to the VA needing a non-nursing home, long-term care option for seriously injured and younger Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Dr. Edes thought Medical Foster Home could work. He says, “Many younger veterans are fortunately coming home to loving devoted families, families who will quit their jobs, will do everything it takes to keep this person home. But we have to realize that over decades things change.”
The Medical Foster Home program is just starting to serve younger veterans. Currently, four younger veterans have been placed in foster homes. Their success may determine how many more are to come.
Nationwide, 219 veterans are being housed in private homes right now, and 644 veterans have been served since the program began. As programs open in more cities, more caregivers will be needed. Luckily, people are eager to help.
Dr. Edes is optimistic. “We had another training program in Tampa, Florida, and we were sold out. It was standing room only for our trainees.”
Williams puts it simply: “It’s nice to know there are people out there who care about other folks.”