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Lawmakers are poised to approve billions of dollars to expand support for people who care for veterans. It's a program the VA put in place for post-9/11 vets. The idea is that if a loved one is doing care that a medical professional would do, then that person should get some kind of financial support. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, the VA program has gotten the attention of aging civilians who may need the same thing.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Family members, mostly wives and mothers, have been doing the work of assisting veterans for decades.
BRAD BARTON: We met in 1970.
LAWRENCE: Brad Barton met his future wife, Donna, on her birthday.
B. BARTON: We were having a welcome home Vietnam veterans dance, and it was St. Patrick's Day.
DONNA BARTON: (Laughter) Well, first of all, I don't think it was St. Patrick's Day 'cause my birthday's in April (laughter).
LAWRENCE: As they began dating, Donna knew what was in store. During the Tet Offensive two years earlier, a mortar round had severed Brad Barton's spine. His spirits were undaunted, but they both knew he might need some help.
D. BARTON: I was able to process it as - well, you know, you love this guy. And, you know, you should really stick with him. So we've been married for 43 years now.
LAWRENCE: There are an estimated 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States according to a study by the RAND Corporation, which estimated they are doing billions of dollars' worth of work that would otherwise have to be done by a nurse or in a nursing home. Post-9/11 veterans can apply to a VA program to support those caregivers, sometimes with a monthly stipend, health care and time off. The Bartons were happy to see this new generation being taken care of.
D. BARTON: It's probably never enough, but it's good that they have that support.
LAWRENCE: But before long, they joined an effort to extend the same benefits to the families of older vets like them. After years of lobbying, Congress is expected to do that this month, though it'll take two years to phase in older vets like Brad Barton.
B. BARTON: I want to see veterans treated equally. We all served our country when our country needed us, and now we need their help. And I think they should do this for us.
LAWRENCE: And it's coming at a good time, says his wife.
D. BARTON: I look at him now. And I think - well, I never thought it was going to get to this point to where we'd have even more issues that we had to deal with because we're both aging.
LAWRENCE: And that last part is true, of course, for civilians as well.
LYNN FEINBERG: It really is at a crisis stage because in just eight years, the baby boomers are going to begin to turn age 80.
LAWRENCE: Lynn Feinberg is with the AARP. She talks about something called a care gap, where the number of Americans who need care is shooting up while the number of younger potential caregivers shrinks. She says the VA program to pay caregivers offers plenty of lessons.
FEINBERG: I do think that the VA Caregiver Support Program is a model for our country. And, in part, it's because it's a coordinated system of care that really integrates health care delivery and long-term care and recognizes the needs of family caregivers.
LAWRENCE: Feinberg says however the country decides to deal with what she calls a coming crisis, it has to remember that caregivers will be needing help, recognition and means to take care of themselves.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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