VA seeking local caregivers for aging military veterans

While trying to get her father medical services through the Veterans Administration a few years ago, Flower Mound’s Charlene Matthews learned about a program too few people have heard of and one she wants everybody to know about.

It’s called the Veterans Administration Medical Foster Home program (MFH for short) which offers a safe, supportive long-term care option and an alternative to traditional nursing, group homes or assisted living facilities. It primarily serves veterans who can’t take care of themselves or don’t have someone who can care for them.

At the heart of MFH are people like Dorothy Jackson, who for nearly eight years has opened her Garland home to three people at a time even while twice battling breast cancer.

“Dorothy provided a loving, caring, and family-oriented place for my father’s needs to be met and gave me some peace,” Matthews said. “Knowing that my father was well-cared for and safe made me sleep better at night.

Matthews moved her Air Force veteran dad John Kulick to Texas from Pennsylvania and he was in and out of various facilities around Flower Mound and Highland Village until she learned about Jackson and the MFH program.

“I asked her ‘what happens when you can’t take care of him,’ and she said: ‘Honey I can take care of him until the Lord calls him.’ And she did.”

Kulick died last September two months short of his 80th birthday.

“He wouldn’t talk a lot but he would talk to me,” Jackson said. “You have to talk about what they like. You need to see what the person needs more than what you need. Once you help them with what they need there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you.”

Matthews was so happy with the care her father received she nominated Jackson for WFAA-TV’s Little Wishes program which granted her a $2,000 landscaping makeover and a $2,000 At Home gift card to purchase patio furniture courtesy of the Sam Pack Auto Group.

“This is my calling. It’s not a job,” Jackson said. “It’s not hard. It’s not about what you’re getting. It’s about what they’re getting. They need you.”

A certified nursing assistant, Jackson spent many years at Harris Hospice in Lewisville before joining the MFH program. The Ida, Louisiana, native moved to Texas soon after visiting a niece. She moved back home for three years to take care of her mother before returning to her job at Harris.

“I take care of them until the end,” said Jackson, who works so closely with the veterans’ families that they become part of hers. “I communicate with them whether they want to hear from me or not. It’s not just my fight. You need to fight with me.”

The MFH program currently features 20 homes – 12 in the Dallas area, 5 around Fort Worth and 3 near Bonham where Program Coordinator Ninfa Araiza is based, as part of the VA North Texas Health Care System.

With about a dozen veterans seeking spots, Araiza would like to find more homes, especially in Denton County.

“This level of care here is the same level of care that you would find in a nursing home,” said Araiza, who with two other coordinators match veterans with foster homes based on personality and skill.

Each veteran and caregiver have a team assisting the homeowner including a primary care physician, nurse, physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietician, program coordinator and others who come to the home. Doctors typically visit annually, nurses about every 4-6 weeks and coordinators drop by monthly unannounced.

Araiza said the idea for MFH was started in 1999 by two social workers in Little Rock, Arkansas, to address issues with home-based veterans’ care. Too many suffered falls which required repeated trips to hospitals but the vets didn’t want to go into nursing homes.

A pilot program by VA hospitals in Tampa, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2004 showed far fewer hospital admissions and a dramatic decrease in falls. That success led to cities like Dallas joining in 2008, Fort Worth in 2011 and Bonham in 2013.

“Anyone who does this, it will be the best thing they’ve ever done in their life,” Jackson said. “It’s all about the veterans. I fight for them. It’s all about them. It’s never about me.”

“It’s meaningful work that comes straight from someone’s heart,” Araiza said. “My medical foster home caregivers are the heart of the program.”

Among Jackson’s current residents is Darwin Ouderkirk Jr., a Marine Corps veteran in his 80s.

“It’s a great place,” Ouderkick said. “She takes good care of me. Now if she wouldn’t be so damn grouchy,” he teased.

“From a loved one’s perspective, it’s a relief to know they are taken care of and finally in good hands,” Matthews said. “It’s a great program. It’s a hidden gem.”

Potential homeowners must have some kind of caregiving experience and complete a rigorous screening and inspection process that can take 3-4 months or more. They must provide two personal and two professional references. Caregivers receive a monthly fee from the veterans that ranges from $1,800 to $3,000 per month and comes from private income, Social Security and/or VA benefits.

For more information on potentially joining the program, call Araiza at 903-583-1413.

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