Morning coffee at the kitchen table.
Roque (Rocky) Riojas, 93, sits at one end, Bronze Star cap on his head, World War II shrapnel in his leg, and he’s telling how his son always comes to visit.
At the other end of the table, Theodosia Mobley, 84, who fought in Korea, scoffs: “He doesn’t always come to visit.”
These two are about what you’d expect in a new foster family. A little picking, a little sniping. But it’s early.
They are part of a new Veterans Affairs program that places military veterans in homes of people willing to open a door. Pretty much like the foster kid system. Most of these vets are old and alone. They have health problems and nowhere else to go other than a nursing facility, and they don’t want to go there.
That’s how Riojas, who grew up in midtown Kansas City, and Mobley, an Arkansas farm boy, two Americans who fought for their country and ended up alone after four score, came to share this breakfast table.
The ranch house on a narrow residential street in southeast Kansas City is their home now, maybe their last. It’s where they watched the World Series together.
“I’m not going to tell you everything is peaches and cream,” said homeowner and caregiver Julius Anderson. “They both have some dementia, and they don’t always see eye to eye.
“But we’re doing OK.”
A polite man who has worked most of his life in residential senior care, Anderson, 48, refers to his new boarders as “Mr. Roque” and “Mr. Theodosia.” Come Thanksgiving, the plan is for Anderson and his lady friend to take the two vets to his family’s holiday gathering in Louisiana.
“I’ve told my brothers and sisters all about them and they’re looking forward to meeting them,” Anderson said. “They are family now, so this trip is important.”
That’s how it’s supposed to work, said Lisa Foodim, manager of home-based primary care for the Kansas City VA.
“Having a spare room is the easy part,” Foodim said. “You have to open your home and your family.”
This is a whole lot better than when I used to visit my mom in a nursing home. It’s a lot more like home.
Roque Riojas Jr., whose father lives in a medical foster home for veterans
The Kansas City VA placed its first veteran in a military foster home a year ago. This has been the learning period. They say it works. At last report, the Kansas City VA had placed five veterans in homes around the city.
“This is a whole lot better than when I used to visit my mom in a nursing home,” said Riojas’ son, Roque Jr. “It’s a lot more like home. His memory’s not good, but he seems to be doing so much better and he’s only been here three months.”
The foster program is administered through the VA, but the veteran is responsible for his care, which ranges from $1,600 to $3,000 monthly for the caregiver, depending on level of care needed.
Now comes the push for more hosts for more vets.
“It’s not for everyone,” Foodim acknowledged. “Most of us are private about our homes.
“I don’t have a vet living with me.”
Margie Cox does. Brian LaLone, a Marine back in the 1970s, came to her house in rural Bates City, Mo., in August. They say they found each other.
Cox says her years as a Navy wife were the best of her life. She loved living on base, loved the camaraderie. But that all ended, along with her marriage.
“To be honest, I was lonely,” Cox said. “I’m 73, and a friend who was an Army nurse told me I should volunteer for the foster program. I wanted to do something for somebody who can’t do for themselves.
“That’s how I met Brian. He 59, way overweight, and I’m a vegetarian. We walk every day and do our exercises. I love his mother. I take him to her house every Friday.”
LaLone suffers sleep apnea, diabetes and heart failure. He had been living in a nursing home. He didn’t know what to think when someone suggested he go to one of the new foster homes.
“It sounded good if it would get me out of the nursing home,” he said in the dining room of Cox’s home. “But foster home sounded kind of weird too — is somebody going to adopt me?”
Nursing homes would be easier and more convenient than the new foster homes, Foodim agrees.
“But it isn’t human,” she said.
Institutional living simply isn’t how people want to live, she said. Often two to a room and on strict schedules. Seniors tend to fight that arrangement as long as they can. But too often comes that time when they are living alone, begin to fall and stop paying monthly bills.
“And we also know that ‘I’m never leaving’ is an irrational stance,” Foodim said.
So a few years back, the VA started developing a model for the Veterans Medical Foster Home Program. Simply put, a homelike setting, warm and caring, where veterans can live out their years.
Here’s how it works: A veteran must be enrolled in VA health care and have needs that can no longer be met at home. The prospective homes are inspected and must be approved by the VA. The home must be able to provide 24/7 medical care, either by the trained caregiver or a backup.
While in the home, the veteran will be monitored by a VA home-based primary care team that includes a doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse, social worker, psychologist, occupational therapist, dietitian and pharmacist.
“And it’s a lot more socialized,” said Terry Curry, VA foster home coordinator for Kansas City. “We see vets going to church, shopping — even vacation.”
Cox plans on taking LaLone with her to visit family in Florida.
LaLone likes living in Cox’s farm home. He begins his story of how he got there by telling of the cold, snowy day 42 years ago when as a teenager he put his younger brother out of the car.
“He was being a pain, so I made him get out,” LaLone said.
His mother didn’t take that well. So LaLone, 17 at the time, took off hitchhiking west. It was 1973. He made it to Los Angeles, couldn’t find a job and joined the Marines.
The drawdown in Vietnam had begun so he never left the United States. After he left the service, he sank into substance abuse, mainly pot and beer. His weight climbed to nearly 500 pounds, which eventually led to sickness and full disability.
“If I hadn’t put my brother out of the car that day, I may not be here,” LaLone said in Cox’s house.
His weight is down to 347 and he exercises regularly with Cox, who also cares for two other seniors in her house.
“I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.
His mother, Norma Phillips, sees the change since he left the nursing home.
“Margie’s been good to him,” she said. “I think he’s happy there.”
As Anderson fixed breakfast, Riojas and Mobley told about their years in the service. No boasts, just a couple of guys who got drafted and found themselves in a war.
Riojas saw a bunch of it and has the card to prove it. He keeps it in his wallet.
The metal card tells how the 34th Infantry was the first outfit to fight in Europe, captured 40,000 German prisoners and served 611 days in combat, the most of any American unit during World War II.
Those days are a blur to Riojas now. He doesn’t remember exactly how the shrapnel got in his leg. He rubbed it.
“Sometimes at night it wakes me up,” said Riojas, who worked years as a railroad clerk.
Mobley, who grew up in a large family on a farm in Arkansas during the Great Depression, remembers Korea as cold and scary. But he was proud to go.
“I don’t know that I loved it, but I guess it wasn’t too bad,” he said.
Anderson said Mobley, who retired from the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, sometimes thinks they’re related.
“He calls me Willie B.,” Anderson said.
Both men like to ride in the car, and Anderson obliges with weekend drives.
“They don’t remember it later, but they knew it at the time,” Anderson said.
Three days a week, he takes Riojas and Mobley to adult day care. While they are there, Anderson works a part-time job in which he makes home checks on other veterans.
Why does he do this, open up his home?
Both his parents died young — his father of cancer and his mother of a heart attack.
“I didn’t get to take care of them at the end like I would have liked,” he said. “But now I can be there for someone else.
“I enjoy being a blessing to others.”
His girlfriend, Linda Thompson, who also works in health care, said she knew there was something special about Anderson.
“I’ve known him for six years and we’ve dated for three,” she said. “What he does with these men is his calling. He opened up his house to two strangers and gave them a home.
“I see how he is with them. They like me — but they like him more. I’m happy for all of them.”
Riojas and Mobley seem happy enough. When they lived alone, visits from friends dried up.
“After so long, you fade away,” Mobley said. “Here I can talk some, fix a sandwich, move around.
“I don’t feel no pain. I’m blessed.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182
For more details about VA medical foster homes, go to www.va.gov/geriatrics/guide/longtermcare/Medical_Foster_Homes.asp or call 816-922-2009 or 800-525-1483.