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A New Program Is Trying To Help Veterans' Caregivers During The Pandemic

Lara and Tom Garey.jpg
Lara Garey
Lara Garey and her husband Tom in 2019. Tom served in the Air Force from 1989-1996 and was diagnosed with service related ALS in 2016.

Burnout is a common problem for millions of military caregivers. And for many of them, the pandemic has made things even harder.

Before COVID-19, Lara Garey of Austin, Texas had a network of support when it came to care for her husband Tom, an Air Force veteran diagnosed in 2016 with service related ALS.

"And once COVID hit, we had to stop everybody coming into the house so it was just crazy stressful," she said.

Even before the pandemic, Garey's daily responsibilities as her husband's primary caregiver left little time to focus on anything else. Without support from family and friends, some days have felt overwhelming.

"Caregiving for me, because of Tom's high level disability, is am I going to get a shower today? Am I going to get to sit down and actually drink a hot cup of coffee?" she said.

Now after eight months of nearly going it alone, Garey has received some much needed help with a free respite relief program from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a nonprofit that offers support and resources to the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers.

Tom Garey deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm.

Twice now, respite workers have come to Garey's house to help organize medical supplies, prepare meals and clean the kitchen. That's a huge job, because Tom has a feeding tube, and his food has to be chopped, blended, and liquified.

"Those are all things that in addition to my normal caregiving duties I have to take care of,” said Garey, who’s been married to her husband, a former Airman for 30 years. You just tend to forget that it takes a tremendous amount of energy. But you're used to as a caregiver, putting yourself last.”

Professional caregiving company CareLinx and the Wounded Warrior Project donated $1 million dollars each to launch the nationwide Respite Relief for Military and Veteran Caregivers program.

The Dole Foundation's CEO Steven Schawb says the organization, founded in 2012 by former senator Elizabeth Dole, saw the need for respite care as the ongoing pandemic meant military caregivers were dealing with long-term isolation.

"Anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among caregivers right now,” said Schwab. “All of that equates to a crisis happening in millions of homes across America.”

In a recent Dole Foundation survey, respite relief was the top need identified by veteran caregivers. Still, says Schwab, many have concerns about safety because they're looking after people with serious illnesses.

"So on a typical day, that veteran, that caregiver, that family, is vulnerable, said Schwab. “Now that we're inside a pandemic, it can be life-threatening."

Schwab says before going into the home, professional health care workers complete a symptom check and recipients are also screened for COVID symptoms.

That's important for the health of people like Air Force veteran Laura Narvaez who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2016 after an IED attack.

The blast caused her to suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and also damaged the nerves that control everyday functions like her blood pressure and heart rate.

That's why a notice with a red stop sign has been taped to the door of her home near Clearwater, Florida since March. It alerts any would-be visitors that she has a weakened immune system.

Laura and Joseph Narvaez.jpg
Cathy Carter
Laura Narvaez served in Air Force Operational Intelligence with the Special Operations Command. During a deployment in 2006, an IED attack caused her to suffer a traumatic brain injury. She was also diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy. Her father Joseph is her primary caregiver and a Fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

"My doctors called the house and were like, are you staying at home? And I was like, yes I'm staying at home, because literally everything they started saying for people that were succumbing to it--I was checking all the boxes basically."

Joseph Narvaez is his daughter's caregiver. He's also a fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and an advocate for other veteran caregivers. These days he hears a lot about how overburdened they feel because of COVID-19.

"Respite care is paramount, he said. “So it's my job now to educate them on where to get help and how to get help."

Steven Schwab of the Dole Foundation expects the program to cover 75,000 hours of care for more than 3,000 caregivers. The next step, he says, is to develop a long-term plan for respite relief.

"Because we want to change the model of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the ways that they're going to offer respite care post-pandemic on a sustained basis,” he said. “So those investments are going to be super important."

Because after the professionals leave, veteran caregivers are back on duty and for many, it's a full-time job.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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