This is a true story, and it may reflect what many older vets face when they start to lose their independence. We’ll call our vet “Uncle Zach”.
At AgingParents.com, we worked with the daughter of a 99 year old gentleman, Tony, with dementia and various health conditions. I would sometimes visit him at home to address legal and healthcare issues his daughter worried about, as she lived far away. One day, I got a call from her. “Uncle Zach showed up at Dad’s house and Dad doesn’t want him to stay. Zach says he has no place to go.” Would I talk to Uncle Zach? I went to meet him at Tony’s home.
Zach was 89, a lifetime friend of Tony. Zach had never married. He had no children nor other family. Tony was generous with his money but he definitely did not want to house his old friend indefinitely in the midst of his 24/7 caregivers. I spoke with Zach about how he ended up in this situation. He related that he had run out of money and was evicted from his apartment. He had a leased car, one suitcase of clothes and a few other things, and that was it. I asked him what he planned to do next. “I have no idea” he replied. He had a cell phone. He did not use a computer.
Could Anything Help Zach?
I spent some time interviewing him, thinking of what public benefits he might be able to get. It turned out he was a veteran. That was a possible solution! But I understood that homeless vets are all over our city streets across this country and there was no assurance of help from the Veteran’s Administration.
My first step was to contact the nearest VA Service Office. Fortunately, the county VA had special funding and connection to the nearest homeless shelter. Their worker transported and placed him there the next day. I was relieved that this frail man would not be sleeping in his car or on the street. He would not have survived long if that happened.
Next, he had to get enrolled in VA benefits, including a pension, and his healthcare. He had never accessed any benefits at all through the VA and had never been seen by a VA doctor. At one time in his life, he was financially successful and before bad investments resulted in losing it all, he had seen private doctors and had income from investments. Now there was nothing but Social Security. No one in his county could live on that. He was in fragile health and could not move elsewhere.
The Problem With Access
VA benefits were available to him if he could just apply. As I investigated the VA website, I saw even an expedited pension application opportunity. But he did not have nor know how to use a computer. I reached back to the VA Service Office and asked them to please meet with him right away and help him fill out and submit the expedited application for pension benefits. There was no response. I called again. Voicemail. Next, I contacted the regional office (the higher ups) and registered a complaint. That got action. The chain of command was activated and the local office personnel were apparently chastised for not doing their job. The local office then acted. After repeated urgings, they also took him to the closest VA hospital in another city and enrolled him so his medical needs would get attention.
Meanwhile, Zach was very grateful for the help. He needed a warm blanket at the shelter, and kind neighbors, when asked, donated that and a few other essentials. When I last spoke with him, he was still in the shelter and safe. He was on a wait list for VA housing.
Any older vet, with no family, getting frail, could be in this situation. Millions of elders like Zach are not computer literate. It is not at all clear to me how any one of them could get the VA pension and medical care to which they are entitled if they can’t fill out forms online. Not every county has an available VA Service Office the vet can access. A family member or friend could help but the vet has to at least remember that benefits may be available so they can apply for them. We may assume that this is “common knowledge” but in Zach’s case he had no idea. If one ever wonders why we have so many homeless vets on our streets, this story may illustrate some reasons.
From this experience, I could see that community education from the VA about available benefits would help everyone. Not every elderly vet has a car or knows how to find a VA Service Office. Zach had never heard of the national veterans services, or had forgotten about them. Not all elderly vets have the mental clarity to seek assistance. Community outreach does not have to be from social service organizations, nor exclusively from the VA itself. Sometimes it might just be one person helping another older citizen who happens to be a vet. One can help by connecting them to services our taxes pay for and that vets deserve to access.