Rio Communities couple takes joy in caring for veteran

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The McDonald home is warm and cozy on a cloudy, drizzly day.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Although they share no blood, Kathy and Jim McDonald, top, and Leroy Bogan, below, are family. Bogan, a retired veteran, lives with the McDonalds in Rio Communities as a participant of the VA’s medical foster home program.

In the back bedroom, lit softly by the gray light from outside, coming in the large windows, Leroy Bogan sits and listens to old jazz and blues songs thanks to the modern technology of cable television.

“Oh this is great,” Bogan says. “It’s something I didn’t know existed.”

It’s not that Bogan isn’t familiar with a caring family environment, but that he never expected to be living in one after his retirement.

The 87-year-old Army veteran is one of two veterans who lives with Kathy and Jim McDonald in their Rio Communities home as participants of the VA’s medical foster home program.

“It basically is what it sounds like,” says Evynea Rocco, the program’s coordinator for New Mexico.

The program, which rolled out nationally about 12 years ago, is an alternative to nursing homes that is available for veterans, Rocco said.

“We were increasingly seeing vets who needed an alternative to nursing homes,” she said. “Over the years, it has been shown that vets physically and socially do well when they are placed in a community, immersing them in a family environment.”

“He really is part of the family,” Kathy McDonald said. “He is a gentle man and a gentleman.”

The McDonalds are the first family in the state to pass the exhaustive screening process for the medical foster home program, Rocco said.

Families willing to be caretakers for veterans have to go through an FBI background check, a home inspection, as well as multiple interviews to determine compatibility.

“We are up to 35 families who have expressed interest in the program,” Rocco said. “So far, two have qualified. It’s very stringent.”

The caregivers help veterans get to doctor appointments, take them shopping, cook meals and do laundry.

When a veteran is placed with a family, they are assigned a comprehensive medical and behavioral health team, Rocco said.

“There’s a primary care team who comes to the home to visit,” she said. “There is a primary care provider, a nurse, a dietician, physical therapist, a social worker.

“It’s a team approach and it helps limit the number of trips vets and their caregivers have to make for regular health care.”

Rocco said both the caregivers and veterans are screened for compatibility.

“We want to make sure the applicant is a match to the caregiver,” she said. “The caregivers are trained and provided with ongoing training on a vets specific needs.

“My vision of the medical foster home program is that the families in an area are one big family, that there is a relationship with all the caregivers and with the other vets in the area.”

The other part of the screening that all parties go through, Rocco said, is a financial screening.

“The veteran compensates the caregivers based on the level of care needed when they are no longer able to live alone,” she said. “We also look at a potential medical foster home’s finances.”

“If you are getting into this for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” said Jim McDonald. “As a rule, we don’t accept gifts of any kind.”

Rocco said the program allows each home to have a maximum of three veterans, so the family atmosphere is maintained and to prevent caregiver burn out.

“The whole vision is a family; you are welcoming a veteran into your family,” she said. “We have veterans with families who had kids, pets — so long as they are OK with it, we’re fine with it. Those are all things we go over when we are screening the veterans for placement. What do they want?”

Jim said since they have been a part of the VA program, they have received more help and support than they ever imagined.

“We have all the support in the world so it really takes the stress off,” he said. “So that allows us to really give them the personal, one-on-one attention they deserve.”

To go along with the support, Rocco says the program also has a lot of oversight.

“They know at any time, without warning, I can come into their home — me and the whole team,” she said.

Taking care of folks who need a little help isn’t anything new to Jim and Kathy. More than 20 years ago, Kathy started a business called Helping Hands, running errands for the elderly.

One of the women she worked for became ill and couldn’t live on her own, so she moved in with them and they have been opening their home ever since.

Bogan had been staying with the McDonalds for more than six months before they became aware of the VA medical foster home program.

“When my family heard this was available for me as a vet, they were through the ceiling,” Bogan said, smiling broadly.

If anyone is interested in becoming a medical foster home, call Rocco at 265-1711, ext. 2038.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.