Korean War veteran Stewart Breeding figured he’d spend the rest of his life alone when his wife, Jettie, died in 2016. He moved into a nursing home and was lonely.
Fast-forward to last month — his 86th birthday — when Breeding walked into Donna and Bennie Nolan’s dining room in Ashland, Ky., to find balloons, a red-white-and-blue chocolate cake and a roomful of people wishing him a happy birthday.
The Nolans are his foster family. Shortly after he moved into a care center, the couple picked him up and took him home with them as part of the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Foster Home Program. It’s an alternative to nursing home care for veterans who cannot live independently.
To Breeding, everyone who gathered around the table to celebrate that afternoon is now family.
"I want to live here with Donna and Bennie until the day I die,” Breeding said. “I love everything about this family. It's a great place to be."
The program, which started in 2008, operates in 44 states. The Nolans are among 700 foster-care providers looking after about 1,000 U.S. veterans with chronic conditions.
Each family participating in the program is allowed to take in up to three veterans, provided they meet foster guidelines and have enough room, said Dayna Cooper, director of home and community-based programs for VA. The agreement is a long-term commitment, and the veterans often live in the foster home for the remainder of their lives.
“Veterans who enter the [fostering] program typically do so because they lack a strong family caregiver,” Cooper said. “So we’re looking for individuals or families willing to take over that role and provide the care and assistance needed for them to remain in a community setting.”
Foster-home providers must pass a background check and complete 80 hours of training before they can accept veterans. They are also required to take 20 hours of additional training each year, allow VA to make announced and unannounced home visits, and may not work outside the home. They also must maintain certifications such as first aid and CPR.
Donna Nolan, 57, who used to run a family restaurant with her siblings, spent several years as a volunteer helping seniors in their homes. She realized that she would qualify for the foster program and was drawn to the idea of making veterans feel taken-care-of in their final years.
"It's a wonderful way to make sure that they're treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” she said. “More than anything, we want them to feel that they belong here. Each of them has their own story and brings something new to our family."
The Nolans make anyone who enters their home feel comfortable, said Trina Beach Touchton, a VA medical foster home coordinator whose district includes Kentucky.
“Donna and Bennie have always been able to give the veterans in their home a sense of family,” she said.
In addition to Breeding, the Nolans care for Larry Davis, 70, and Golden Asbury Dick, 73, both of whom served during the Vietnam War. The Nolans and other foster families are paid a stipend averaging $2,400 a month per veteran, which is set by care providers and the veteran, and is generally less than what a long-term-care center would cost.
The fee is paid by the veterans through their benefits and Social Security, and some use personal funds. About a quarter of the veterans enrolled in the foster program are eligible for nursing home care that is fully covered by VA but prefer to pay for the foster program because they want in-home care, according to VA.
Veterans who enroll in the program also receive at-home visits from doctors, counselors and occupational therapists, but, most important, said Bennie Nolan, 68, they get to experience family again.
He recently helped his wife look after two other veterans until they passed away. He said he sees the veterans who live in his home as fellow soldiers.
“It’s an honor to have them living with us,” said Nolan, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and a retired railroad blacksmith who also worked as an Army communications specialist for 20 years. “Nurturing has always been a big part of my life, and Donna’s life, too.”
Donna Nolan, who comes from an Air Force family, knew that she wanted to participate in VA's fostering program as soon as she heard about it in August 2016.
“I love my country, and I love our veterans,” she said. “It just seemed like a natural fit.”
With the Nolans' three children long out on their own, the couple had plenty of room to spare in their 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath ranch house in Ashland.
The first veteran to move in was Wayne Kelly, a Vietnam veteran and former Little League coach who had no family and enjoyed watching the Nolans’ grandchildren play baseball. He died in April 2018.
Another former member of the household, Bobby Graham, who also served in the Vietnam era, was a double amputee and always called Donna “Mom,” said Bennie Nolan.
“Bobby thought that Donna did things for him like his mother did,” Nolan said. “He loved her cooking and was always very grateful to her after many years of living alone.”
Donna Nolan said she and her husband grew close to Graham in the months he lived with them.
"On the day he came to us in May 2018, the first thing he said was, ‘I’ve found a home,’ " Donna Nolan said.
The flag that covered Graham’s coffin was folded into a neat triangle and is displayed on the Nolans’ fireplace mantel, along with the family’s personal military mementos.
“It was hard to lose him and Wayne, they really had become part of our family,” Donna Nolan said. “I didn’t expect them to go so soon.”
On a typical day, the Nolans make sure that the three veterans in their care have home-cooked meals (biscuits and gravy are popular for breakfast), clean laundry, and some sunshine and fresh air. They also take the men to their medical, dental and eye appointments and ensure that they take their medications.
Bennie Nolan also looks forward to making a “cheeseburger stop” on the way home from doctor visits.
On weekends and holidays, it isn’t uncommon for several of the Nolans’ nine grandchildren to drop by to play cards with the veterans, watch a Western movie or just sit on the front porch with them.
“These people served and love our country, and they put their lives on the line,” said Landon May, 14, the Nolans’ grandson. “Now they need our care.”
That loving vibe is felt on both sides, said Larry Davis, who moved in with the Nolans in October 2017 when his health took a downturn and he could no longer live alone.
“It beats a nursing home — that’s for sure,” he said.