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South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)

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Caregiver Program: Setting families up for success

A group of people are sitting down looking at a stage and a program ready to start

In November, the South Texas VA Caregiver Support Program honored its participants with an appreciation lunch and information briefing. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

By Steven Goetsch
Friday, December 14, 2018

Social workers are lifelines to community programs and services, and Veterans Affairs is no exception.
One of those lifelines is the Caregiver Support Program. With its 96,000 unique patients, the South Texas VA has one of the more robust programs in the healthcare network, serving 248 families and processing over 500 applications annually.
 
Caregiver support isn’t as simple as signing people into the program, and ensuring the stipend is processed. The numerous types of care are only outweighed by the diversity of each family’s challenges. In fact, 2018’s theme of the Caregiver Appreciation Luncheon was aptly titled, “Caregiving around the clock.”

No one knows that better than the Alvarez family. Julio, Sonia and Mariana, have been taking care of their son/brother Luis, since he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan on November 14, 2011. His condition was dire. He went through 120 units of blood in two days and he had a brain pressure of minus 10. A normal pressure is around 210, Julio explained.
 
Sonia said the doctor told her, “you need to spend as much time with him because he might not make it,” Sonia recalled. Miraculously, Luis’ condition improved as he worked his way through the military health system, eventually moving to the Wounded Warrior Program and Center for the Intrepid in 2013, officially becoming a Veteran in August of that year.

The Alvarez family was faced with a big decision. Doctors recommended a nursing home for Luis so they could attend to his round-the-clock needs. Sonia had a different perspective. “My son does not belong in a nursing home,” Sonia said. “He’s only 25 years old for crying out loud. Maybe my husband should go, maybe one of you should go.”

They made a family decision to take care of Luis, but knew they would need some help. That’s when they were introduced to the caregiver program. Luis said his family’s transition was made much easier with their social worker.
 
“The transition went smoother because of the expedited process. That is when I signed up for the caregiver program,” Julio said. Their son’s first VA was in Tampa, and Julio took advantage of all the caregiver support programs the VA offered. “Tampa VA had weekly teaching classes on different topics like finances, caregiving and self-care,” Julio said. I attended as many of these classes as possible to obtain the knowledge.”

A group of people are standing around a Veteran in a mobile wheelchair

Sonia Alvarez (left), smiles and talks to Luis her son while Mariana comforts him during a cooking therapy session. The Alvarez's provide round-the-clock care for Luis who was injured by an IED in 2011. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

South Texas VA social worker and caregiver program coordinator, Megan Smith, says the training is one of the valuable resources all caregivers should take advantage of. “The program seeks to be a support and a resource to the Veteran’s caregiver, regardless of their eligibility for the stipend.”

Julio had an obvious motivation for taking advantage of the VA resources. “I realized that I would have to take care of Luis for the rest of his life, so I’d better get this right now,” he said.

And it has paid dividends. The Alvarez family excelled at their newly-learned caregiving duties, receiving A-plus marks from the dental and wound care programs. Their level of care has been so consistent, Luis has only been in the hospital three times in the last five years.
 
That level of care does come with a price though. Julio, and Sonia had to quit their positions as pastors, and their daughter Mariana, who had her own career working with wounded Veterans, relocated from Illinois down to San Antonio, to assist her father.

Mariana gave her own bit of advice for caregivers. “There is a heavy scheduling component in being a caregiver,” Mariana said. There are medications to administer, bathing, appointments to be made or rescheduled, and working with medical staff.”

Mariana recently took over as one of the primary caregivers to give her father a break from the toll his duties were taking on his body. It also gives him an opportunity to research alternative therapies he feels might benefit his son.

Bridget Newsome, another member of the South Texas VA caregiver program team said the program is flexible to help the Alvarez’s do what’s best for their son. “We offer our regular services through the General Caregivers Program, but we can also offer to refer them to other VA programs, services and benefits they might be eligible for,” Newsome said.

One of those specialty services is cooking therapy. That was something Luis liked to do before he got injured. The concept is that it reintroduces Luis to the sights and smells of his favorite foods. One fall day, it was cooking pancakes. The therapist works with Luis’ fine motor skills by holding and using various kitchen utensils.

In addition to their training, Mariana said they are managing as caregivers because they are a tight-knit family, and no one can take care of Luis as good as they can.

Newsome gets her satisfaction knowing she helps provide the tools that make her clients successful. “I get true satisfaction hearing how the program, not just the stipend, and all of its services and support that is provided has been beneficial and made a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and caregivers.

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