Burton Hayes, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II, has spent 70 years with his wife, Mildred.
Even now, with Burton at 91 years old and Mildred in her late 80s, the Petersburg couple get to remain together at home, thanks to a program run by the U.S. Veterans Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living.
Participation in the program — titled Veterans-Directed Home and Community Based Services — means that, even though Burton Hayes had a heart attack a little less than two years ago, he gets to stay at home with his wife and receive care from their niece, Debra Roache, who is compensated for her work through the program.
“Burton was determined that he would not be in a nursing home,” Mildred Hayes said Thursday during an event at the American Legion Post 175 in Mechanicsville. “Being able to be at home means so much to him.”
Thursday’s event was held to announce that the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center has decided to launch the program as well, starting with 10 veterans this year and expanding in later years. McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond was one of the first to start the program shortly after it began in 2008, and has since been allowing local veterans such as Burton Hayes to stay at home and avoid institutions like nursing homes.
Nationwide, 2,090 veterans are enrolled in the program, and it’s offered by 62 VA medical centers in 34 states.
It’s not reserved solely for elderly veterans, though. Disabled veterans like Chesterfield County resident David Rogers, 30, who served in the Air Force from 2005 to 2011, also use it. Rogers was in an accident while serving, and a traumatic brain injury left him “catastrophically injured,” said his mother, Lauri Rogers.
Veterans-directed services work by giving the veteran and his or her family independence to choose what they need, allowing them to create a budget with the Veterans Health Administration money as they see fit. They may not need help preparing food, for example, but with mowing their lawns or cleaning their homes. They can hire the right people to provide those services.
Before attending Thursday’s event, Eric Hargan, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, visited a veteran enrolled in the program who lives in Mechanicsville. Hargan noted how the program is flexible and lets the veteran hire their own caregivers themselves.
“It gives them autonomy,” Hargan said in an interview. “He’s in his own home; he’s not in an institutional setting. ... He’s got somebody that cares for him, and he knows her, he hires her. And so, that just creates ... a very healthy dynamic.”
Once a VA medical center launches the program in its area, it typically contracts with a Health and Human Services community-based organization such as an area agency on aging. Bay Aging is the organization that works with the McGuire VA Medical Center’s veterans, and it will also work with the Hampton VA Medical Center’s veterans.
Kathy Vesley-Massey, president and CEO of Bay Aging, said that when it first began working with McGuire, only a handful of veterans were enrolled. Then for a few years the number stayed at 15 to 20 veterans, until a few years ago when the program gained more steam. Now it has nearly 150 veterans enrolled.
Having that independence can make all the difference for local families. When she spoke during Thursday’s event, Lauri Rogers outlined the numerous ways she struggled to care for her son before enrolling in the veterans-directed services program.
“They say, with brain injury — and it’s with every injury — when you’ve seen one brain injury, you’ve seen one brain injury,” she said. “Everyone’s care is specific and everyone’s care is personal, and every family and household is different, and the vet-directed program is the first one that afforded us the ability and flexibility to try to return to a form of normal family home life like every American deserves.”
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