Caring for veterans has given me a sense of self-worth, knowing that I’ve made a difference in the lives of people who have defended our nation. But pursuing my passion for caregiving has been a real struggle, and because of incredibly low pay it’s sometimes hard to just feed my four children.
It’s difficult for many veterans to find caregivers. They don’t have enough home care options to begin with, and the inadequate wages in the sector keep the number of providers down. I’m telling my story — which is shared by families across Colorado and the country — in the hope that our voices will be heard and more home care choices will be created for our nation’s veterans.
It’s deeply rewarding to provide home care to vets, but it’s also tough work. My duties have included helping them with bathing, cooking, grocery shopping, medication reminders and taking them to doctor’s appointments.
Being a caregiver not only takes a strong body, but also a strong heart filled with understanding and patience. Many veterans suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia, PTSD, or extreme anxiety. Oftentimes, their minds can be stuck back in the days when they served, and they can have a war-like mentality.
One Marine veteran I was caring for, who had served in the Korean War, would snap back into his war experience if something set him off, like watching footage of an overseas conflict on the news. He would really take it hard and become very emotional. I’d take him on river walks and talk him down to calm his nerves, because he loved being outdoors in nature. Through lending him a listening ear, we built a solid foundation of trust together and really clicked.
Every day, he expressed how much he appreciated me for not giving up on him. Like a lot of veterans, he didn’t have many family members left. He had lost his wife and oldest daughter, and felt very alone, so I was honored that I could be there for him.
It broke my heart when I had to move on from him in order to find another caregiving job that paid more, so I could support my children, ages 4, 5, 8 and 10. I’m a single mom, and I just couldn’t make ends meet on $14 an hour. On top of the low wages, I did not have any health insurance or paid sick days.
Unfortunately, he was not the only veteran I had to leave. I had previously cared for a wonderful man who served in the Air Force and lived in a very rural area that took an hour and a half roundtrip to get to. His son pleaded with me to stay, but the VA didn’t provide mileage reimbursement, and I simply couldn’t afford to go on paying for the gas myself.
Poverty-level pay and the lack of basic benefits have led to a growing caregiver shortage across our state and country. This urgent problem has only grown worse as the cost of living has skyrocketed and other industries have started offering much higher wages. The aging veteran population increasingly can’t find workers at a time when demand is surging, creating a long waiting list for services. There are more than 370,000 veterans in Colorado and 16.5 million nationally, almost half of whom are over the age of 65.
Most veterans would prefer to live in their own home rather than a nursing home, but there are currently insufficient choices for home care services. In particular, it’s very difficult for many veterans to pick their own caregiver – including family and friends – which restricts the pool of available workers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs could ease this crisis by creating a wider range of home care programs, with significantly increased wages and benefits for workers. There also needs to be more job training for home care workers about how to meet the unique needs of veterans, particularly dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
These steps would grow the number of available caregivers and incentivize many more people to enter this vital profession. That would help solve the workforce shortage, especially in more remote areas. Investing in home care is also good for American taxpayers, because supporting veterans in their own homes rather than nursing homes involves much lower overhead costs.
It was disheartening to hear the veterans I cared for regularly say they felt people were not grateful for their sacrifices. Our country needs to show aging and disabled vets that we do in fact recognize them, by providing them the support to live at home with dignity, well-being and health.
Carry Topash lives in Cañon City.
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