Every day, thousands of Virgin Islands friends and neighbors take on ever-growing responsibilities as family caregivers. Like 17 million Americans serving as family caregivers, a smaller local population has no training, no resources, and few ideas about the kinds of care that are needed. If a care-related emergency strikes, they can become overwhelmed, according to information found on the website of the Family Caregivers Alliance.
That’s the way it is for many living in the territory, regardless of income or resources. According to the director of the local chapter of the Association of American Retired Persons (AARP), a comparable community on the U.S. mainland with a similar population and similar income levels would likely have:
- A federally-certified nursing home,
- A community hospital,
- An assisted-living community with various levels of service, and
- At least one in-patient hospice service
Some of those resources are available, but on a limited basis, said AARP Virgin Islands Chapter Director Troy deChabert-Shuster. The aged and disabled who can afford it can move stateside for those services, he said, but they do so at the cost of saying goodbye to all that is familiar in their lives as Virgin Islanders.
Through the local chapter of AARP, caregivers and those they care for can connect with webinars and pamphlets offering helpful information.
One of Schuster’s recommended first stops along the journey is a Prepare to Care Guide, which is also available in Spanish. The national nonprofit also offers a Medicare Guide to Family Caregivers. “The guide explains how Medicare works. It has information on prescription drug coverage and helpful terms caregiving friends and family need to know,” the AARP state director said.
But de Chabert-Shuster said the most important step family and friends acting can take as caregivers is to take care of themselves. “AARP has developed a Caring for the Caregivers workshop. It’s a support service for caregivers, and it’s presented by a clinical psychologist who works for the Department of Health. The sessions are open to anyone over 18 who serves as an unpaid caregiver. The caregivers who participate always find it very refreshing, very helpful,” de Chabert said.
Human Services has a caregiver’s support group that meets regularly. Director Arleen O’Reilly says the Family Caregivers Support Program is one of several ways the agency helps families caring for the elderly and disabled. “It is recommended … that the VIFCSP be a program that is embraced and encouraged, as it supports families in their caregiving efforts, allowing them to keep the senior adults home longer, being more independent,” O’Reilly said.
By enrolling in the support group, caregivers can also be reimbursed for respite services and stipends for personal care items, the director said.
And when disaster struck the Virgin Islands in 2017, the support program extended its reach to caregivers in the group closer to home.
“The VI Family Caregiver Support Program never ceased to provide supportive services for the caregivers enrolled in the program,” O’Reilly said. When agency offices were damaged in the storms on St. John and St. Croix, group administrators organized pop-up tents and borrowed spaces where caregivers continued to meet.
When hurricane recovery gave way to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, new challenges arose with social distancing, she said. “The program resorted to virtual workshops and teleconference support groups which are continued to date. The program currently hosts 12 support groups per month between the three islands,” O’Reilly said.
Human Services also helps families through the Nutrition Program Services (Meals on Wheels and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) and Homemaker Services. For caregivers who help with bill-paying chores, the Energy Crisis Assistance Program assists qualified applicants meet the costs of utilities and cooking gas. Eligible elderly and disabled residents can also apply for visits from personal care attendants or reduce isolation by joining a local senior center.
Many families have made these resources part of their caregiving strategies, the director said.
“Within the territory, there is a tremendous need for the various types of social services for older adults. The most sought-after service would be Homemaker Services … residential or institutional programs follow (as) a high second in demand, followed by the nutrition program with the hot meals for the homebound older adults,” O’Reilly said.
The Virgin Islands Public Transportation System (VITRAN) operates a paratransit service for disabled residents and their caregivers. Trips for doctor’s visits, shopping, and errands to utilities, the post office, the bank, and pharmacist are made with an ADA-compliant van that accommodates wheelchairs. Eligible riders can fill out applications at Public Works. Information can be found at (340) 773-1664, Ext, 4225.
Online convenience is available for families taking over grocery shopping. A number of local stores and warehouse outlets offer options for shoppers who call in and pick up their purchases curbside. There is also a large, nationally-based pharmacy that offers online shopping and pickup services for those working with in-home medical supplies and personal care devices.
Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez shared some special concerns caregivers can consider in times of disaster.
“Being a full-time caregiver for a loved one is truly complex. Add the challenges that a manmade or natural disaster brings in combination with their loved ones’ medical diagnosis, or other primary caregiving responsibilities can be devastating for everyone,” the commissioner said.
For those reasons, Causey-Gomez says planning ahead can make all the difference.
Caregivers are urged to think about the things that could go wrong or might not be available in times of storm emergencies, power outages, house fires, or pandemics as a way to prepare and to reduce the confusion and disruption that care receivers might otherwise experience.
“Being prepared allows for peace of mind when a disaster comes, and knowing you have a plan allows for our caregivers not to panic. Knowing you are not alone and ensuring you enlist family, friends, and community agencies or faith-based organizations should be an important part of your plan,” the commissioner said.
Residents age 60 and over, as well as those who are disabled, are also urged to sign up for the Elder, Dependent, Adult, and Disabled Persons Disaster Registry.
“This registry helps emergency support responders and support service volunteers establish contact and communication with the individual, providing aid and support in the event of a manmade or natural disaster. The registry also places individuals into categories, including those who would need special transportation such as lift adaptive buses or an ambulance,” said Human Services Communications Director Ryan Nugent.
DHS submits the information collected from the registry to VITEMA, VI Fire Service, and the Virgin Islands National Guard to identify and rescue vulnerable populations in disaster situations or if there is a medical or other emergency.
Those who qualify or those who wish to have their care receivers placed on the registry can do so by visiting Human Services, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and the Virgin Islands Elections System to fill out the registry form. They can also call one of the Human Services offices for assistance in completing applications.
The disaster registry form can also be found online by clicking here.
If you missed the first two parts of this series, see the links below.