Military veteran caregivers are like 'the best friend to the vet'
Angelena Taylor began caring for her 72-year-old father, Benjamin, at the beginning of 2016 after the Vietnam veteran had a stroke.
This story was produced with support from the New York & Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations and community partners dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about successful responses to social problems. The group is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. Read related stories at nymisojo.com. The collaborative also has compiled a detailed Caregiving Resource Guide with links to online information about various issues of interest to caregivers.
The stroke stripped Benjamin Taylor of use of the right side of his body. As with many veterans, he also has additional health issues, including depression and invisible wounds. The lifelong Detroiter served in the Marine Corps, followed by 27 years as a Detroit police officer. Angelena said her mom died when she was in high school.
Angelena Taylor's role as her father's full-time caregiver — a role for so many loved ones of military veterans in Michigan and the United States — is vitally important.
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“It’s a really important relationship, father-daughter,” her father said. “I think it makes it more personal, and I don’t know if just anybody could be a caregiver 'cause it’s a lot of work … The care that I require is not one or two hours out of a day. It’s every day, all day, except for when she’s asleep.”
'Life ... came at me pretty quickly as far as becoming a caregiver'
Angelena Taylor, 35, said her dad’s speech eventually returned after his stroke, but his mobility did not.
“I never initially considered myself as a caregiver,” she said, adding that she was looking for additional resources to help her dad at home when she became his caregiver.
“Life kind of just came at me pretty quickly as far as becoming a caregiver. It wasn’t something that either of us expected … This is what my new role is. This is what our new situation is like, and I’m gonna try to take care of him the best that I can.”
Even when Taylor was sent equipment to help care for her father, such as a lift, but was given no instructions on how to use it.
Even when caring for him brought on some of her own health issues, such as hip and back problems from repetitive motions for which she regularly sees a chiropractor.
Even when it was difficult for many of her Wayne State University professors to “care or understand what I was going through” with her scheduling needs to be home and still do what she needed for her master’s degree.
“You can’t always predict what your loved one is going to need at certain points in the day ... A lot of people that are not in that position don’t really, they honestly just don’t care or seem to have any sympathy or any empathy towards it,” she said, adding “that’s not the level of understanding that caregivers need … Our lives are not the same as people who are not caregivers for someone.”
“It’s important to be my dad’s caregiver," said Taylor, who raises awareness about family caregivers as Ms. Michigan World Universal. "I love him, so I don’t want to see him not being cared for."
"A lot of the facilities cost so much, so it’s more feasible for people to have their loved ones at home … Knowing he’s safe, knowing that he’s in the comfort of his home — because he worked so hard to get his home ... I didn’t want him to have him spend the rest of his life at a facility if it wasn’t necessary.”
Millions of military veteran caregivers in the U.S.
Taylor was named a 2021 Dole Caregiver Fellow by The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which supports the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers who care for wounded, ill or injured veterans. There are 108 caregivers and four fellows listed for Michigan on a map on the foundation’s website as well as nine communities, including Detroit, designated as Hidden Heroes cities.
President Joe Biden declared November National Family Caregivers Month, saying that more than 50 million Americans provide care and medical assistance to help parents, children, siblings and other loved ones. That includes caregivers of military veterans, who are honored this week on Veterans Day.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is recognizing November as Veteran Caregivers Month to pay tribute to those who care for veterans in the Mitten State. She called caring for a wounded veteran “heroic unsung work” that is often done while caregivers — who can be relatives, friends, neighbors or coworkers — balance other commitments to their families, jobs and communities.
Whitmer said these “these hidden heroes — our neighbors, family and friends — put their lives on hold to care for our veterans … And while the opportunity to provide care to a loved one can be a blessing and a source of connection, it often requires sacrifice." She said thousands of Michiganders have sacrificed jobs and altered careers to perform caregiving duties.
Michigan's rising veteran population reached nearly 568,000 in fiscal 2020, the state reported last year.
William Batton said without caregivers such as his wife, Suzette, veterans like himself might not be able to stay at home.
“The caregiver is like the best friend to the vet,” the 66-year-old Taylor man said. “It’s a day and night thing. It’s endless work … It’s something that we got to be thankful we have individuals to do that.”
Batton, a Vietnam veteran, said he was a disbursing clerk in the Navy. He has health issues from exposure to asbestos and PTSD and uses a walker.
He said Suzette, also 66, handles his medications, washing, cleaning and cooking. She said she also helps her husband of 46 years find comfortable sitting positions, makes sure he has a special pillow to lay down with at night and ensures his CPAP machine for sleep apnea is running correctly. She makes sure he gets to his medical appointments and out in public, such as walking on park trails with his walker.
“If you’re taking care of a vet, you know you’ve got a busy day ahead,” she said, adding the couple has been involved with a couples’ program and caregiver program through the Veterans Affairs.
“I’m gonna do for him whatever I have to do for him,” she said. “That’s how far in I am and have always been. It takes a lot. This is a lot.”
Suzette Batton said she’s been with her husband for every appointment, every surgery. She listens to the doctors and does her research on various subject matters afterward.
“I wasn’t thinking, I was never thinking, I would marry a military guy … God knows different,” said the retired mother and grandmother. “I do it because of the love and the companionship that we have. Me and my husband, we were blessed enough to be friends first before we became lovers. And, so, that really worked.”
“For me,” William Batton said, “this is the best thing that could have happened.”
“I do the best I can, and I try to give myself a little bit of grace'
Julie Roberts became a caregiver around 2019 for her husband, Matt, who was a Navy Seabee and suffers from Gulf War syndrome after being exposed to toxins during his deployment.
The 49-year-old Grand Rapids woman also cares for her son, Jacob Seadorf, 23, who lives at home and suffers health issues from a viral infection last year in which he suffered heart and kidney failure.
Roberts also holds down a full-time job as a patient care coordinator for an audiologist group while her husband works full-time as a manager and her son takes online college classes part-time.
In addition to doing all of the housework, Roberts schedules and attends all of her husband's and son's medical appointments, coordinates their care with various specialists and coordinates their medication and refills while working with the civilian hospital system for her son’s care and VA for her husband’s care.
Roberts said the family receives housekeeping assistance every other week through a grant through Kent County Veterans Services. She has to prioritize what she needs to do each day.
“There are just some things that don’t get done,” she said. “I do the best I can, and I try to give myself a little bit of grace, but if isn’t done, that’s OK. The important thing is that they’re (husband and son) taken care of.”
Roberts said the couple has three stepchildren who come every other weekend, and they want to spend time together as a family — “that’s the most important thing.”
“It’s a lot of work,” she said of being a caregiver, “but it’s also a sense of accomplishment that I can help them and be there for them.”
Roberts said she feels honored to give back to her husband who served, and to care for her son, who was born prematurely and struggled his entire life, though “he never complains. And he has been such a strong, independent, amazing light in my life that I am more than happy to do this as a mother.”
'Caregivers ... help complete you”
Stephanie Hall has been a military veteran caregiver twice.
Hall, president and event director and co-founder of Michigan-based Warriors and Caregivers United, is caregiver to Edenville Township Supervisor Terry Hall, an Army veteran, and was a caregiver to her ex-husband, who was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2012.
But the caregiver roles were different. This time, the 41-year-old Mount Pleasant woman provides environmental, emotional and mental health support for her husband, who has PTSD and other invisible injuries from his deployments overseas.
“I know firsthand that getting support from loved ones … really does extend (a veteran's) life,” said Stephanie Hall, who was a 2019 Dole Caregiver Fellow. “Keeping their quality of life is really helpful to what caregiving does for these veterans."
“It’s a job. It’s a calling. A lot of people have to quit their job or school to support their veteran. It’s not for everybody,” she said, but added: “if you’re not able to do it, it doesn’t mean you don’t love the person."
Terry Hall, 54, said he medically retired in 2014. Within six months of being out of the military, he said he ended up in jail and was eligible for Veterans Treatment Court through Kent County, where his healing began.
No doubt, he said, "the caregiver has a tremendous amount of influence."
Stephanie Hall, who was raised in New York, said she has been emotionally supportive of her husband and keeps him on track with paperwork and appointments, which takes that stress away from him, allowing him to perform other duties.
“I’m getting better and healthier,” said Terry Hall, who said he still works with the Kent County Veterans Treatment Court and runs a support group for veterans that meets once a week.
“I would not be where I’m at today without the relationship we have. I couldn’t do it without my caregiver. I gotta have that rock. The caregivers are that rock.”
“Sometimes they get the tempest, sometimes they get the warmth of the sun,” he said, but “she supports me in the things I’m trying to do, even if I’m going off the rails … By having a caregiver who strengthens you and supports you, you get to the point where you are healthy.”
“The key with caregivers, honestly, is they help complete you.”
Caregiver to caregiver advice: Take care of yourself, ask for help
Caregivers, themselves, also can suffer secondary PTSD, acute depression, suicidal ideation and even suicide. But they can get help.
“We are here to support each other and lift each other up,” Roberts said.
Caregivers provided some tips and advice for other caregivers:
- Take care of yourself.
- Caregiver resources, and possibly financial stipends, are available through the VA Caregiver Support Program and the Program of General Caregiver Support Services. On Oct. 1, the VA extended eligibility for one of its major caregiver support programs, which can provide assistance and a stipend for those who provide care to disabled veterans. Before Oct. 1, this program did not cover those who served between May 7, 1975, and Sept. 11, 2001. The program is now open to family caregivers of severely wounded veterans of all eras.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help with an errand, laundry, cooking a meal or sitting with your loved one.
- Make friends with other caregivers.
- Connect your veteran with other veterans.
- Make a list of things you don’t have and connect with an organization or person who can help.
- Hold yourself gently and treat your emotions gently as it can be "a roller coaster ride.”
- It's normal to go through a grieving process about what you thought your life was going to be like and what your life really is like, such as how you work, interact with extended family and how the rest of the world perceives you.
- Reach out to organizations for support, such as the Roslyn Carter Institute for Caregivers or The Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
- Check the Michigan's Veterans Affairs Agency website listing for caregiver resources and the Veteran Navigators website through the state health department's Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Administration for additional assistance.
Contact Christina Hall: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
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