On Saturday, we join the nation in celebrating Veterans Day and the generations of American service members who swore an oath to the Constitution of the United States to support and defend the principles of liberty, equality, and justice and to preserve and protect our democracy. About six percent of Americans are veterans, and their numbers disproportionately include older adults and people with disabilities — nearly three-quarters are 55 or older, and about a third have a disability.
We are proud that many of the disabled people and older adults that ACL and our networks serve are veterans who once served our country. One program that specifically supports veterans of all ages is the Veteran-Directed Care (VDC) program, a partnership between participating Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers and local aging and disability organizations that helps veterans continue living independently at home. The program empowers veterans to self-direct their long-term supports — which can include hiring family members as caregivers. For Veterans Day, we wanted to share this story from Alaska’s VDC program which demonstrates how self-direction has made all the difference for two veterans and their wives.
To honor Veterans Day, we connected with two veterans and their caregivers to hear about their firsthand experiences with the Veteran-Directed Care program.
Dean and Duane, two Vietnam War veterans, and their wives and caregivers, Wilma and Jorilyn, participate in the VDC program at Mat-Su Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC), which serves veterans from the Alaska VA Health Care System. The two couples first met through their church. The four of them quickly became close friends, due in part to Dean and Duane’s shared experiences as veterans and Wilma and Jorilyn’s shared Filipino heritage. Their closeness is apparent to anyone who meets them. As Dean put it, they all had “a lot of love for each other.”
Dean enrolled in the VDC program first. He heard about the opportunity from his health care provider and learned more from Mat-Su ADRC workers Dawn and Thomas, who he described as the “kindest, sweetest people in the world.”
From his first meeting with Mat-Su ADRC, Dean was drawn to the program’s self-direction model, which allowed him to employ his wife Wilma as his caregiver. As he explained, “she knows me best.” She helps him with a variety of daily tasks, keeps track of medications, and generally supports his well-being in ways small and large. Dean joked that, as his wife, Wilma also keeps him honest and makes sure he tells his primary care doctor everything going on with his health.
After their positive experience with the program, Dean and Wilma recommended it to their good friends Duane and Jorilyn.
Duane was inspired by Wilma’s experience in the program. He noted that before becoming a paid caregiver through the VDC program, Wilma had multiple jobs, but “when they got on the program, she was able to be with him 24/7” and Dean is now “able to get the care that he deserves and that he needs.”
Since Duane joined the program, Jorilyn’s experience has been similar to Wilma’s experience. Before enrolling in VDC, she would constantly worry about Duane when at work and call him frequently during her breaks to make sure he was okay.
That changed after he joined the program and she became his caregiver. “I’m so very, very thankful that … we can have time together and that I can take care of him,” she said. In addition to helping Duane with daily activities, she also regularly takes his blood pressure, prepares his medicine, and makes home remedies for him.
Both Dean and Duane consider themselves big spokespeople for the VDC program’s flexibility, which allows family member to be hired as caregivers. As Dean explained, “I really believe that the best home care provider is a family member — a wife, or someone that can be with the veteran 100% of the time” because of the love and support they can provide.
This was especially true because of both veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses.
“Our wives really know how to handle it,” Dean noted. “They calm us down and listen to us.”
Jorilyn agreed, adding that there can be “a gap” between what a family caregiver can provide and what other paid employees can provide. Because of their love for each other, Jorilyn explained that caring for Duane is more comfortable and personal, and she wants to support him as much as she can.
The two couples have also had a very positive experience with the Mat-Su ADRC specifically.
“I couldn’t say enough … about the staff here,” Duane said, adding that they went above and beyond with their kindness and care.
For example, he received birthday and Veterans Day cards from the staff.
“You don’t know how heartwarming that is.” He also shared that Dawn — whom Jorilyn described as a very “happy” person — even brought over some of her mother’s old trinkets for a children’s ministry that Jorilyn and Wilma support in the Philippines. They were very grateful for these acts of kindness.
In the end, Duane captured it best when he said VDC was “like the country saying, ‘We love you and we care.’”
Both Dean and Duane demonstrated immense patriotism and humility as they described their service to the country. Dean described a special understanding he feels he shares with fellow veterans. For example, he recalled the initial adversity he faced when returning from Vietnam and coming home as “individuals, not as a unit.”
“For 24 years, I served my flag, I served my country, and I served the people,” he said. “And if I had to do it again, I would do it again.”
We honor Duane, Dean, and their families and thank them for their incredible service to this country. We are humbled to have them — and many fellow veterans — as part of the VDC community.