Social workers at Mann-Grandstaff VAMC want more veterans to learn about Veteran Affairs programs that can get veterans the care they need, even at home. The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) provides family caregivers of eligible veterans benefits that can improve the life and outlook of their veteran and their entire family. The VA Mission Act of 2018 expands eligibility beyond the original program, which previously only authorized support for veterans injured since Sept. 11, 2001. The VA is currently reviewing options related to extending the eligibility period.
“VA values the knowledge, skill, and perspectives of all caregivers,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a Nov. 28, 2018, press release seeking public comment on PCAFC, and demonstrates a “desire to create a program that best serves the participating caregivers and veterans.” VA recognized PCAFC in November by promoting awareness and benefits of the program, including caregiver training, respite care, counseling, technical support, a monthly stipend, beneficiary travel and caregivers’ access to health care (if qualified) through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA).
Sandpoint, Idaho, native Mark Hepinstall, a U.S. Army veteran, and his wife Ashleigh say they’re more than grateful for VA’s Caregiver Support program. Their VA journey began with weekly visits to the VAMC in 2008. “It just took us a while to figure out a routine that works for us,” explained Ashleigh, who gets a brief respite once a week, but is otherwise the main caregiver for her veteran husband, after they applied for VA Caregiver Support program in 2012. They say it changed their life together. “It was a huge shift in our relationship,” she smiled.
The severity of Mark’s health conditions used to require a 90-minute drive to Spokane three times each week. But now, with case management support from VA’s Social Work Service, Mark and Ashleigh can utilize VA’s Rural Health Clinic in Sandpoint, the Caregiver Support program and the Veterans Choice program (now Care in the Community, or CITC) to receive medical care in their local community. A 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran, Mark was given a bleak diagnosis following seizures that were only the beginning of multiple cancer issues. Now, he can stay at home and receive the care he needs from Ashleigh, whom he trusts and loves the most. He can’t drive anymore, but he can still tinker on his favorite Subaru and enjoys taking a ride with his wife into the mountains. He still enjoys sitting and hunting in the woods, and overlooking Sandpoint and scenic Lake Pend Oreille during the drive back to town.
Mark served in the Army from 1980-1987, but after Sept. 11, 2001, he “asked to see if there’s anything I could do to help my country again.” Idaho’s Army National Guard immediately accepted him back because of his prior service and expertise with weapons. He maintained, repaired and issued military handguns, carbines and machine guns, and refurbished turrets and tank barrels.
‘We’ve learned a great deal through all of this,” Ashleigh said. “First and foremost, though, I had to realize and remind myself, he is my husband and has earned respect as a man and a veteran who served our country.” She explained the difficulties because Mark can no longer do most things on his own. “It’s not about waiting on him hand and foot. It’s about keeping him safe, because there have been times when he has been a danger to himself, at no fault of his own,” she said. Sitting side-by-side, joking and laughing about how far they’ve come since their friendship became a marriage, tested by debilitating illness and therapy; they are a proud and happy couple.
Mark has lost more than 50 pounds and can walk with a cane, but still needs assistance for bathing; showers are too dangerous because his balance isn’t the best anymore. “At this stage,” he said, “we have fun in the little things,” as simple as using a pool noodle to prevent head bumps on the ventilation hood over the stove.
They happily share pictures, before and after the cancer diagnosis, including Mark’s bout through chemotherapy and steroids to battle cancerous tumors and seizures. Ashleigh recommends VA Caregiver Support for anyone who wants to know more about caring for their veteran and loved one. She suggests creating a special binder for their veteran that holds important financial and health documents, including lists of medications and doctors, and a chronological order of all appointments. The whole thing is easy to reference when needed.
As a new year begins, this couple admits they have found a quality of life they can enjoy all year, thanks in part to sticking with it and putting in the effort to understand how to access and use benefits available to veterans through VA.
Programs like Caregiver Support are available for veterans through VA’s Rural Health Clinic in Sandpoint and the North Idaho Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Coeur d’Alene. VA Social Work Service can also be contacted though the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane at (509) 434-7765. To begin the Caregiver Program application process (VA form 10-10CG), visit www.caregiver.va.gov.