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Caring for All Those Who Serve

Photo from the Friendship Center

Alice did not identify herself as a caregiver, despite the fact that her husband, Howard, was suffering from dementia, in addition to physical and mental disabilities from the Vietnam War. Alice always said she was, “his wife of 55 years,” not his caregiver. As Howard’s dementia progressed, however, Alice knew that she needed help. Exhausted and in despair about how she would find the money for help, she turned to Lompoc Valley Haven, an adult day care center. The executive director, Kathy Concepcion, told her that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would most likely pay for the cost of the respite care program. Alice could not believe it – she had no idea that such resources were available to caregivers of veterans. The lack of public information about available resources and services for veterans in Santa Barbara County is exactly why organizations, like Lompoc Valley Haven and the Friendship Center, offer specific outreach to veterans and their families.

“Paying for a caregiving service can be really costly for a lot of families,” said Luciana Mitzkun, Family Services Director at the Friendship Center, which received an Express Grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation to develop a marketing plan. “However, for eligible veterans, the VA will cover up to 100 percent of these costs if families just fill out the application. Many families are intimidated by the application, or don’t even know that they can apply for it at all, which is why we work with them to explain the process, fill out the paperwork and, hopefully, place their loved one in our program.”

In addition to the lack of education among veterans and their families about the services that the VA offers, there is also a lack of veteran-specific training for caregivers. People who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease experience memory loss and deterioration that can often cause them to revert to earlier memories and experiences. For veterans suffering from these diseases, this can mean that they may revert to earlier traumatic moments that they experienced in war, which can make it more challenging to provide them with effective and empathetic care.

“Caring for a loved one with dementia is hard no matter who you are because while each case is unique, it is always horrible,” said Mitzkun. “However, for veterans, we provide specific programming with our VA-certified therapists and support groups for their caregivers because the pattern of behavioral display usually reflects trauma at one point or another. For example, we had one veteran who would do bird imitations and, for the longest time, we could not figure out why. Then, we discovered in a support group that, in Vietnam, there were certain bird calls that were used to communicate in stealth and were essential for survival. Knowing things like this has helped us create a more personalized and unique plan for his care.”

County organizations, like Lompoc Valley Haven and the local Friendship Centers, are not the only ones recognizing the need for increased awareness and specific programming for veterans and their caregivers. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter started the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) that focuses on advocacy, education and research on caregiving. Its program, Operation Family Caregiver, coaches the families of returning veterans to manage the difficulties they face when they come home. Senior Director of Community Investments and head of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Community Caregiving Initiative, Phylene Wiggins, recently attended the RCI 30th Anniversary Summit from October 25-27 and, after learning more about the goals of Operation Family Caregiver, has recognized ways that the efforts in family caregiving can intersect with the research that Santa Barbara Foundation’s North County Director, Kathy Simas, is doing in veterans issues.

“Through research, collaboration and funding, the Community Caregiving Initiative is helping to support family caregivers on a local level and, on a national level, is participating in discussions about creating policies to aid family caregivers,” said Wiggins. “Simultaneously, my colleague Kathy has been working on an assessment that identifies the needs of veterans in the county. Given the demographics of our local veteran population, we see this as an opportunity to collaborate on how the work intersects so that we can increase our community knowledge as an organization, and create a more cohesive system to support veterans and their family caregivers.”

For more information about the Community Caregiving Initiative, please visit the website or contact Phylene Wiggins, Senior Director of Community Investments at pwiggins@sbfoundation.org. For more information about the recently released Santa Barbara County Veterans Assessment, please visit the website or contact Kathy Simas, North County Director, at ksimas@sbfoundation.org.

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South County Headquarters:1111 Chapala Street, Suite 200, Santa Barbara, CA 93101