Program gives veterans with health concerns independence, peace of mind

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VIETNAM VETERAN Joe Barnes works on a lamp in his workshop in Kalispell on Tuesday. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

For Joe Barnes, a 74-year-old Vietnam War veteran, a new program through the Flathead County Agency on Aging has helped him stay positive and upbeat, even through a series of health setbacks.

Through the program, Barnes is able to live independently in his Kalispell home with the support of a caretaker of his own choosing. Barnes’s ex-wife, Connie Barnes, is his caretaker, and is paid through the program based on Barnes’ level of need.

Barnes was confined to a wheelchair after a health emergency about 10 years ago, related to hypertension he developed after returning from military service in Vietnam. Barnes was in the Navy from 1964 to 1968 and served overseas in 1967 and 1968.

“It is difficult to express how great it is,” Barnes said. He said Connie does everything, “from cleaning the bathroom to vacuuming the floor,” while in the summer she manages the lawn, garden and Barnes’ two dogs.

Now, Barnes has time to do woodworking in his shop. Barnes uses old, salvaged wood to make items such as clocks or lamps. On Tuesday morning, he was working on a lamp made of countertop corian and polished wood.

“This helps keep me going,” Barnes said.

The Veteran-Directed Care program was launched nationally in 2009 and arrived in Flathead County in 2018 through the Western Montana Area VI Agency on Aging. In October 2019, the Flathead County agency took over the program for Flathead veterans.

“The purpose of the program is support vets that are at risk of institutionalization so they can stay in their homes and in their communities,” said Lisa Sheppard, director of the Flathead County Agency on Aging. She said veterans in the program use caregivers “most typically for personal care, so things they need help with – bathing, dressing, hygiene, getting their meals, getting from place to place.”

With the direct-care program, the veteran gets to choose their caregiver and create a “Care Plan” that outlines the services, supplies and estimated budget the veteran requires. Many veterans choose family members, such as spouses or children, as their caretakers.

“They actually become the employer of the caregiver,” Sheppard said. “They know best what they need. And it allows them to make those choices, rather than having to pick from an array of services” in a program not of their own design.

There are currently 39 veterans enrolled in the program. Ronn Larsen, the program coordinator, would like to see that number go up, as there are over 8,000 veterans in the Flathead.

He said right now the only way veterans find out about the program is if it is mentioned to them at the Veterans Affairs Clinic, so he is trying to get the word out to other veterans who could benefit from the program.

“It’s like a lot of services. People don’t know to ask for it because they don’t know that it exists,” Sheppard said.

“If you are a veteran or are caring for a veteran that has this need for personal care and might be at risk of institutionalization, but you want to find a way to stay in your home, this is a way to do that.”

Barnes said he did not know about the program until someone from the Area VI Agency on Aging called him and explained it to him in early 2019. This was after he returned from treatment in California following a scary medical episode that nearly claimed his life.

Barnes said he was skeptical at first, “but you don’t really realize the limitations you go through in a wheelchair,” he said. “Under this program, it’s made a big difference.”

He said a lot of veterans are hesitant to accept that they might need help, but “once you start to age, whether you want to or not, you are facing limitations.”

Larsen said veterans who go with agency-based care usually get “between 6 and 13 hours” of in-home care per week, whereas with his program veterans have a budget and get to determine how many hours of personal care they need.

Larsen said while the veterans in the program tend to be older, as expected, there are no age restrictions.

“My clients range from one that just turned 40 in December to one that turned 98 in November,” he said.

To qualify for the program, the veterans must be enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system. Veterans Affairs will complete an assessment to determine the veteran’s level of need, and then notify the Agency on Aging.

In some instances, “a person can have too great a need to be met by this program,” Sheppard pointed out.

Because the veteran is the employer of their caretaker and is in charge of how the budget gets spent, there is a lot of paperwork involved that can be “really burdensome,” Sheppard said. But the Agency on Aging has a fiscal agent, Missoula-based 406 Financial, that will handle administrative concerns like paperwork and taking out the correct taxes.

“That’s a really important feature of the program … otherwise it could be intimidating,” Sheppard said.

Each veteran’s monthly budget for the program is currently between $1,916 and $3,016, depending on the level of care they require.

“Anytime you can support someone in their home, which is where most people prefer to be, it’s typically more cost-effective than large facility-based care,” Sheppard said. “And to go that extra step and to make it directed by the person receiving the service ... it gives that person maximum flexibility.”

Barnes said he still moves around town, but the sidewalks in winter pose a problem for someone in a wheelchair. In addition, the service he uses to go to the grocery store or doctor appointments – Eagle Transit’s Dial-a-Ride – will sometimes be full, especially on Wednesdays.

But with a familiar caretaker available both on a routine basis and on-call, he always has a ride available.

“You have somebody that’s concerned about you,” he said. “That takes the edge off.”

Plus, Connie will also pick up lumber for his woodworking projects.

“Everybody has challenges. I have challenges every day, challenges I didn’t used to have,” he said. But the program “encourages me not to give up.”

For more information on the program, call the Flathead County Agency on Aging at 758-5730.

Reporter Colin Gaiser is available at 758-4439 or cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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