For someone who loves to get out on the water and fish as much as Happy Valley resident Bill Parker, the inability to walk is crippling to both the body and spirit. Assistance he gets through a veteran program new to Alaska is helping Parker feel more like his old self.
The Veteran-Directed Home and Community Based Services Program has been available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs since 2009, but was launched in Alaska for the first time last year by the Independent Living Center of the Kenai Peninsula.
Parker, an Army veteran who served 20 years from the end of the Vietnam War through 1994, has been struggling with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. The neurological condition results in “progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms” when the covering on peripheral nerves is damaged, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Parker has progressively lost his ability to walk, and is confined to a chair when not being assisted by others in his leg braces. Life has been much more comfortable since he enrolled in the program, he said.
The Independent Living Center contracted the Veteran-Directed Home and Community Based Services Program through the VA last year. It gives veterans who require nursing home-level care a monthly stipend to spend on in-home services as they wish based on an initial medical assessment. Any Aging and Disabilities Center across the state can contract the program through the VA and offer it to the surrounding community.
After an issue with billing on the VA’s end that caused the Independent Living Center to stop admitting veterans for a short time, the program has been back up and enrolling more veterans. The center has enrolled 12 people to date but two of them have died, leaving the current total enrollment at an even 10. The center’s executive director Joyanna Geisler said the program still provided the silver lining of allowing those two veterans to die at home, the way they wanted.
“That’s the sad news, but that’s the good news as well,” Geisler said.
Other than the initial medical assessment and footing the bill, the VA is not involved in providing the program’s services, which Geisler said in a previous Clarion interview puts more power back into veterans’ hands.
If a veteran isn’t in a state to decide how their monthly stipend gets spent, they can appoint a designated representative to make those choices for them. This is usually a family member. Shoney Parker is the designated representative for her husband and has used the money to get a better recliner, equipment and caregivers for him.
“Knowing his care … for one thing I wanted him to get two to three showers a week for his skin and … wellbeing,” she said. “And I wanted him to have socialization.”
Caregivers to help drive to and from doctor appointments is another benefit of the program, she said.
When Ninilchik and Clam Gulch residents heard about the program last November in the Ninilchik Senior Citizens Center, some of them worried that the program, while ideal for those with nursing home-level needs but living between towns, would not function in rural areas without caregivers close by. Fortunately for the Parkers, one of their caregivers lives just down the road. Geisler said lack of caregivers nearby or willing to travel hasn’t presented much of an issue.
“What has been happening for most of the folks is … they may have had providers through the VA or though another system like Medicaid, and those same personal care assistants have chosen to, at least for that veteran, not work for that agency anymore, and work for that veteran,” Geisler said. “So that’s been really ideal.”
In fact, more veterans from rural areas of the peninsula are enrolled in the program, with five coming from the Ninilchik and Clam Gulch area, and only three coming from the combined Kenai and Soldotna area and another three from the Homer and Anchor Point area. One veteran has even enrolled from Kodiak, Geisler said.
“Out in the more rural areas they’re floundering a bit and they don’t want to (leave),” she said. “They want to stay where they’re at.”
For Clam Gulch resident Wayne Mossberg, an Army veteran of the Korean War, something as basic as taking showers regularly couldn’t be counted on before he enrolled in the home-services program.
“We had to get along without it at the beginning, and then they instituted this program,” he said.
In the absence of Veteran-Directed Home and Community Based Services, the VA will support either up to 12 hours a week of in-home care, or nursing home care on the other end of the spectrum, Geisler said in a previous Clarion interview.
Now, Mossberg gets help keeping track of his medicines along with housework and gardening. Being able to bring two caregivers into the home allows Carol Joyce, Mossberg’s wife and designated representative, a chance to recharge.
“It gives me that little bit of a break that I need to keep my energy where it needs to be,” she said.
Bill Parker also had trouble getting regular showers before the home-services program. He and his wife found that with the new program, he can use his monthly stipends for caregivers who will help with more than just medical needs.
“If Bill wanted to go to Homer for a cup of coffee, they can drive him in,” Shoney Parker said of the caregivers. “And he needs socialization and he needs to be able to feel like he’s got a life instead of just the wheelchair and the braces.”
Bill Parker said it’s been hard to go fishing lately, as he doesn’t want to put a burden on his friends. With a caregiver, he can have someone designated to helping him in and out of the boat without distracting from the fishing, Shoney Parker said. It’s helped him revive the long-beloved hobby.
“The guys that I have go with me, they put the boat down there and I jump in — well, not jump in,” her husband said with a laugh. “It works good.”
Both couples said word of mouth is still a very useful tool in their rural communities for helping people find out about the program.
“We tell everybody we know about it,” Shoney Parker said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.