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Helpful tips for family caregivers
Timely tips to help you support the person you care for.
Benefits available to veterans
With Veteran’s Day around the corner, we wanted to point out the range of benefits available to those who served our country in uniform. It doesn’t matter how long the veteran has been out of the military. All who were honorably discharged can apply. Spouses are eligible too, even if they are divorced or the veteran has died.
The Veterans Administration (VA) medical benefits package can include
- doctor visits, hospitalization and surgery
- prescriptions, lab tests, and x-rays
- dental and vision care
- home health care and hospice
- nursing home care
It can also include nonmedical services such as
- respite care, adult day services
- home care assistance (cooking, bathing, etc.)
All veterans and family members can apply for these benefits.
- For most of these services you must go to VA facilities or VA-approved providers.
- Applicants are ranked into one of eight priority groups. A veteran’s priority ranking will determine which types of services are available. It will also affect the cost of copayments.
- Priority points are given for specific circumstances. High priority goes to those who served in wartime. It also goes to those with “service-connected” disabilities. POWs and persons who fought in heavy combat get special ranking. Vets with low income also receive some priority points. Dishonorably discharged veterans are not eligible for any benefits.
Additional insurance coverage may be available through TriCare.
Because Congress determines funding for the VA annually, the breadth and depth of services can change from one year to the next.
Help navigating the system
The VA recognizes your role as a family caregiver. They also know that VA benefits are confusing. That’s why they have set up Caregiver Support Services. You can call their toll-free number to reach a Caregiver Support Coordinator: 855-260-3274.
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The importance of vaccines
We usually associate the word “vaccine” with children. But vaccines play an important role in disease prevention for seniors, too. Because aging weakens the immune system, even common infections can cause serious problems for those over age 65.
The annual flu shot
The flu takes a heavy toll on aging bodies. Hospitalization rates for seniors surge during flu season. Really, what we call “the flu” is a constantly changing virus. Because there’s a new type circulating each winter, an annual shot is essential. That is true for your aging relative, but also recommended for any adult caring for a frail elder. For greatest effect, get the shot sometime in the October to December time frame.
Other important vaccinations:
- Shingles. Shingles is a very painful rash caused by a virus in the herpes family that is related to chicken pox. Many people experience shooting nerve pain for weeks or even years after the rash goes away. Half of elders who make it to age 85 will likely have a shingles outbreak. A shingles vaccination is recommended for all persons 60 and over.
- Pneumonia. Pneumonia-type infections take the lives of about 32,000 seniors each year. Most of these infections are preventable. Everyone age 65 or older should be vaccinated. If your relative was vaccinated before age 65, he or she needs a booster shot every five years.
- Tetanus and diphtheria. Tetanus may be better known as “lock jaw.” Diphtheria is a disease that blocks the air passage in the throat. These infections are not common. But they are deadly. And preventable. It is recommended that seniors get a tetanus and diphtheria shot once every 10 years.
Always check with the doctor before getting a vaccine. You’ll want to discuss health history, allergies, and side effects. Medicare and Medicaid usually cover these vaccines.
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Would having a dog help? A fish?
Increasingly, research shows that older adults can benefit in myriad ways from the companionship of an animal.
Physical health benefits
Pets seem to help us stay calm in the midst of stress:
- Reduced blood pressure and heart rate. Some research shows improvement even when the “pet” is fish swimming in an aquarium!
- Strengthened immune system. One study found an increase in an infection-fighting blood factor.
- Fewer pain medications. Adults who had pet therapy while recovering from joint replacement used 50% less pain drugs than those who did not.
Mood and activity benefits
For elders living alone, pets may provide a kind of companionship essential to well-being. Older pet owners are believed to be more active than their peers. One study even showed that older adults with pets go to the doctor less often than those without.
Other benefits of pet ownership include
- improved mood. Some research shows that petting an animal stimulates release of the brain chemicals that lift mood. This may help explain why other studies link pet ownership with lower levels of depression and anxiety.
- reduced loneliness. A pet can take the edge off of living alone. Or it can help stimulate relationships by providing a topic of shared interest with other pet owners.
- fewer anxious outbursts. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease appear to benefit by having a pet at their home or residential facility. Several studies show less agitated behavior.
- better balance. Older adults who walk dogs regularly appear to be more confident and to have improved balance. These factors may help reduce the risk of a fall.
Researchers caution that there is much work to be done before drawing firm conclusions. But there are already many reasons to consider owning a pet. Goldfish anyone?
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