VA foster program helps older vets manage COVID challenges


Susan Snead used to live in an apartment complex for older adults. The complex had a nice dayroom, and neighbors would knock on her door every now and then to check in.

But despite not being lonely, Ms. Snead, 89, did live alone in downtown Charleston, S.C. Eventually, that became dangerous.

“I fell a few times,” she says. “I had to call somebody to come and get me up.”

Sometimes help would come from the apartment complex’s office. Sometimes it came with a police escort.

Over time, needing to make those calls became a burden. Making and keeping appointments with her doctor, something she had to do regularly, as she has diabetes, got harder, too.

“It kind of wore me out,” she says. “Like you’re going up a hill.”

As she was beginning to accept she could no longer live alone, Ms. Snead, an Air Force veteran, learned about a program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs called Medical Foster Home.

Medical foster homes are privately owned homes in which a licensed caregiver lives with and supervises residents around the clock. Caregivers help aging veterans with activities of daily living like bathing, cooking, making and getting to appointments, getting dressed, and taking daily medication.

Caregivers can take care of up to three residents in their home at a time. While most residents are veterans, caregivers sometimes care for non-veteran residents, such as a veteran’s spouse or a caregiver’s family member.

Veterans typically pay about $1,500 to $3,000 out-of-pocket per month for the service, depending on location.

According to the VA, the concept of medical foster homes has been around since 1999, when VA hospitals across the country began reaching out to people willing to provide live-in care for veterans. The option is led by local VA hospitals, which approve caregivers and provide administrative services. There are now 517 medical foster homes, the VA says.

Much like other residential care facilities, medical foster homes get regular inspections for safety, nutrition, and more.

In 2019, Ms. Snead signed up for the program. She expected to be cared for, but she found a sense of family with her caregiver, Wilhelmina Brown, and another veteran in the home.

Ms. Brown started taking care of people – but not necessarily veterans – in 1997 when her grandmother was unable to care for herself, she says.

“My grandmama carried me to church every Sunday, she carried me to the beach – everywhere she went, she took me with her,” Ms. Brown says. As her grandmother got older, “I said, ‘I’m going to take care of her in my home.’ ”

Caring for others must come from the heart, Ms. Brown says.

She cooks her residents’ meals three times a day with dietary restrictions in mind, washes their dishes, does their laundry, remembers birthdays, and plans little parties.

“That’s my family,” Ms. Brown says.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world – but at the same time, it highlighted the advantages of the medical foster home model.

Home-based primary care keeps veterans out of nursing homes – something that became particularly important as COVID-19 hit nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Caregivers in the system were also able to help veterans, often living in rural areas, pivot and adapt to telehealth during a time of crisis.

One study, published in the journal Geriatrics, set out to identify how medical foster homes were able to deliver safe, effective health care during the early stages of the pandemic.


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