Arthur Fust was among friends.
"There's pizza today," he said cheerily to the others hunched around a table at the Long Island State Veterans Home. "No live entertainment. No Banjo Joe. But there's pizza."
At 86, with no car and in need of a walker to get around, the Navy veteran once faced the prospect of being a shut-in in his Smithtown apartment, depending on his adult children to care for him, or having to move into a nursing home.
His situation isn't unique. With some 88,000 Long Island veterans now 65 or older, elder care is an increasing challenge for them and their families. Among the 153,000 veterans living on Long Island, 26,000 in Nassau are 75 or older. Another 25,000 have reached that age in Suffolk.
But programs available to aging military veterans allow Fust to continue living on his own, while receiving meals, physical therapy, and recreational and other services at an adult day care program in Stony Brook.
Nursing-home care costs average $205 a day nationwide for a shared room, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Home health aides charge an average of $21 per hour.
These and other costs related to aging can quickly overwhelm veterans living on fixed incomes. They can also overmatch their adult children, just as they are grappling to cover the cost of sending their own children to college or providing for retirements.
"It's a problem we keep ignoring, and it's not going away, it's getting worse," said John Javis, a veterans program director with the Health Association of Nassau County.
Many options for aid
Javis and others say there are a host of federal- and state-funded resources available to help aging veterans maintain their independence, including federal financial assistance, adult day care, in-home services and veterans-only nursing homes.
Those services were the topic of an aging veterans conference open to the public Saturday at Farmingdale State College. Experts say the resources often go unused because they're not widely known.
All elderly veterans with a better than dishonorable discharge may be eligible for at least some level of subsidized elder care through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, said Joe Sledge, a spokesman at the VA facility at Northport.
For example, veterans who served during wartime and are now in need of help with basic functions, such as bathing, feeding and getting around their house, are eligible for a needs-based VA pension supplement known as "aid and attendance."
Housebound veterans with less than $80,000 in liquid assets -- not including the value of their home, car or other items -- can receive up to $1,758 per month, or $2,085 if they are living with a spouse. Information can be found at the VA website: nwsdy.li/elderlyvabenefits
Hesitant to seek help
Advocates say elder care for veterans can pose unique challenges.
Significant numbers of veterans have service-related disabilities, such as hearing loss, amputations or skeletal injuries.
Many Vietnam veterans have chronic conditions linked to Agent Orange, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes or various cancers.
Worry over these issues "can bring back symptoms of PTSD that they might have resolved years earlier," said Melanie Brodsky, an assistant director of social work at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport.
But even with these chronic needs, some veterans are hesitant to ask for help due to a dogged sense of self-reliance drummed into them during their military service. For others, self-isolation may be a reaction to war trauma.
"I've had veterans who can barely walk who say, 'Save the help for guys who really need it,' " said Gary Richard, a retired Army first sergeant who now works as a veterans service officer for the Suffolk Veterans Service Agency.
A friendly space
Fust, a native Long Islander, returned from North Carolina after learning about State Veterans Home programs from a friend shortly before his wife died five years ago.
Living on Social Security and food stamps, Fust said Medicaid and federal programs cover his $161.56 daily veterans home bill.
Staff there serve meals, manage his medications, organize fishing trips or racetrack outings and book drop-in entertainers like Banjo Joe.
"The main thing is I have a lot of friends here," Fust said. "It's 'Hello, George,' 'Hello, Jose.' I look forward to coming here."