Caregivers of veterans have been ignored by the VA for too long—but change is coming.
That was the official statement from VA Secretary Denis McDonough at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Sixth Annual National Convening, held Oct. 29.
“Our job at VA and EDF is to help those caregivers to find ways to make their lives easier—both because that’s the right thing to do and because supporting caregivers improves outcomes for veterans,” he said. “I know that at times, throughout VA’s history, caregivers have been overlooked. Or not included. Or not appreciated for the back-breaking work they do, and the incredible service that they provide. But I’m here today to say, to any caregiver watching, that those days are over. Let me repeat: Those days are over.”
To illustrate his point, McDonough pointed to the professional respite services – valued at more than $500,000 – provided free of charge to caregivers during the pandemic, along with vaccinations and personal protective equipment for more than 85,000 caregivers.
He also pointed to the Biden Administration’s appointment of the first ever senior advisor for caregivers for the VA. Meg Kabat is a licensed clinical social worker, previously serving as a case manager with the U.S. Navy and most recently serving as a senior director for Atlas Research, where she supported the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention Office. With more than 25 years of providing service to veterans and their families, Kabat has been recognized with multiple honors, including the VA Exemplary Service Award.
“We are thrilled that the administration has called on Meg to advance the care and benefits offered to families, caregivers and survivors of our nation’s veterans,” said Mark Chichester, President of Atlas Research, in a January 2021 release. “From supporting the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention Office to facilitating the COVID-19 Nursing Home Commission, we’ve seen Meg’s exemplary leadership at Atlas. We have no doubt that she will be a key asset to the administration.”
The VA also announced its Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers – which was recently expanded in 2020 to cover veterans injured before 1975 – will soon also cover caregivers of all generations. The VA’s Caregiver Support Program is also extending to legacy applicants and family caregivers who participate in the PCAFC. All these initiatives, McDonough said, allow the VA to build upon four focus areas: advocacy, access, outcomes and excellence—especially important during a pandemic.
“This is the type of stress that leads caregivers to suffer from anxiety, depression and health issues more often than most Americans,” he said. “And it means that our shared mission to care for those caregivers has never been more important than it is right now.”
McDonough also highlighted the agency’s Program of General Caregiver Support Services, which gives caregivers access to education and training (both in-person and online), as well as clinical support, including counseling, workshops, support groups and peer mentoring. The VA even offers “Annie,” a text messaging service that sends self-care tips, educational and motivational messages, and stress-management activities to help caregivers in their daily struggles.
The program, he said, allows caregivers to find strength and networking among their peers.
“Because as you know, the health and happiness of caregivers is inextricably tied to the health and happiness of the Veterans they serve,” he said. “In other words, by improving caregiver outcomes, we improve Veteran outcomes—and we at VA are going to stop at nothing to do both.”