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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

263: Suzette Graham

Helping U.S. wartime veterans and spouses pay for their senior care is the mission of Suzette Graham, CEO of Patriot Angels.

This episode was recorded at ASHA.

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Welcome to season six of Bridge The Gap, a podcast dedicated to informing, educating, and influencing the future of housing and services for seniors. Powered by sponsors Accushield, Connected Living, Hamilton CapTel, Referah, The Bridge Group Construction and Solinity. The contributors are brought to you by Peak Senior Living and produced by Solinity Marketing.

Lucas 00:37

Welcome to Bridge The Gap podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas, another great guest here at the ASHA Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. We have a great friend on today. We wanna welcome Suzette Graham, the CEO at Patriot Angels. Welcome to the show.

Suzette 00:52

Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be here.

Lucas 00:55

Well, we’re very excited that you are here because you have some of the most interesting life stories of anybody that I’ve ever spoken to. And we just want to, first of all say thank you for supporting Bridge The Gap. You’ve been a great supporter of ours. You’ve attended our events. You have high fived us when we’ve needed encouragement and love hearing your story. You have a lifelong track record of advocacy for anyone really that needs it. Where did you start with this passion for helping those in need?

Suzette 1:29

So I started with my mom in Alaska. We moved to Alaska when I was little and my mom started the first feeding program up there for the homeless and for the needy. And so she would go get groceries twice a week and we would go in our car to those areas of the neighborhood and then kids would come out, adults would come out and it became a thing. Everybody expected it twice a week. And so she continued to do that, had her own food pantry up there. And so I’ve just always been a part of that. And got involved with the Foster Parent Association, became the president of the Foster Parent Association, became a lobbyist for children’s rights. Got the laws changed the heroes and more from the governor for getting the laws changed to get kids out of foster care and into permanent homes. Moved to Tennessee and started helping homeowners that were in foreclosure, stopped their foreclosure and sell their home. Because there’s some dignity in that, not having to lose your home but sell it. And then when the market went soft I went to work for a company to help veterans. So that was kind of my trajectory and it just seemed like it happened.

Lucas 2:37

So at that point though there’s, this is kind of like the next phase of the story. So you went to work for this new company and you started to learn about veterans benefits, but when you kind of pulled back the veil, it wasn’t all that it seemed.

Suzette 2:53

Was not. So my job was to tell ’em about the benefit, and that’s how I learned about the benefit and then send them to a law firm. And so I would send ’em over and come to find out what they were doing was trying to find how much money the client had to take their money and sell an annuity. And so, which is not illegal or it’s just at that age, they don’t need their money tied up. They need their money, right? If they’re moving into senior living, their cost of care goes up, they can’t get their money back, they have to move out because they can no longer afford it even though they had the money. And it just so happens that once I found that out, Greg Richard from COO of Brookdale stopped by and left his card. And so I called him and I said, “Can I have a meeting? And he said, “Sure.” And I went up and met with him and I said, “Do you know that this is happening in your communities? You’re people are saying ‘we’re here to help your veterans’ and they’re not really there to help their veterans.” And he goes, “No, of course we didn’t know that.” And he said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” And I said, “I’m looking for a job. I need a job.” And so he said, “Come back tomorrow.” I met with him and John Rails who’s here and Ron Ayler. And they said, “Suzette, if you will start a company, Brookdale will be your first resource.” So that’s how I got my start in this.

Lucas 4:10

And what year was that?

Suzette 4:13


Lucas 4:16

So you’re 10 years old?

Suzette 4:17

10 years old.

Lucas 4:18

10 years young!

Suzette 4:19

That’s right.

Lucas 4:20

So did you start with a big high-end office with a bunch of rockstar employees, C-Suite and all that? How did you get started?

Suzette 4:31

So I went home and now I have no job and I have five kids, four living at home. And I’m like, “Okay, I have to make this work on a budget.” And so I set up a desk in the corner of my bonus room and I got a magicJack and I plugged the magicJack into the computer with a phone in it, you know, and if your computer’s slow, the phone dies. It’s like one of those. But I started calling communities and they were very receptive looking for somebody that would really help their veterans and widows get benefits that had no alternative motive, wasn’t there to sell an annuity, wasn’t there to manage their resources, strictly there to help them get benefits. And so I just started calling. They started calling back in. I was writing everything down on a patent paper. Pretty soon I upgraded to a PDF. I was so proud and had all these icons on my desktop. And I called my daughter who was in the next room and I said, “Come help.” So I set her up a desk, she was my first employee. And then I called my son who was living in Alaska at the time with his dad. And I said, “I need an Excel spreadsheet or some way to keep track of these people because I’m just getting so many calls.” And so he came down, set up a desk, and then I set up my oldest daughter in the next corner. And I tell people I ran out of corners before I ran out of children. So I had to get another space. And we got our first office space. I was scared to death. It was $1,200 a month. So worried about being able to afford that and still, you know, make this.

Suzette 6:00

But prior to that, when we were in the process, like I was telling you, my house went into foreclosure. My car was repossessed. My electricity got shut off and for two months we went and set up in my daughter’s house and worked at her house till I could get my electricity turned back on. And it just so happens a friend of mine came by and he said, “So how’s it going? Your new business and all this?” And I just started crying. I’m just like, “I know it’s an opportunity. I know I want to help these veterans, but I’m just struggling.” Right? And he pulls out his checkbook and says, “What can we do? What can we do to help?” And he writes me a $12,000 check. I got my house out of foreclosure, didn’t get my car back, but I got my house out of foreclosure, got my electricity turned back on, and just have been sailing ever since. Paid it all back. And the first month that we made $12,000, we were jumping around the office. We were so excited that we had made it.

Josh 7:00

Well, that is such a cool story outside of just the good work that you all do. I think so many people see successful people and don’t realize the pain and heartache and hardship and all the obstacles, blood, sweat, and tears that people put in. And I’ve said this a lot, it’s not always easy to do good. You think sometimes you see a huge need. You see advocacy, you see something, you’re like, “Oh, well this, this should be a no-brainer. Surely everybody wants to help.” And it’s amazing sometimes when you’re trying to do good, all the obstacles that get thrown in front of you. And it sounds like you experienced a lot of that.

Suzette 7:39

Well, starting up a new business, how difficult it is. And the financial things you run into. I mean, it’s not an easy task to start a company. But 10 years later we have 130 employees. We just passed 15,000 approvals for our veterans and widows so excited about that. And I put a lot of VA money in the pockets of our clients.

Josh 8:06

So what does it look like? How is that relationship with a community, with a residence’s family is most of the time you’re being introduced from the communities themselves?

Suzette 8:16

That’s correct. So 30 to 50% of everybody living in a community or looking to move into a community are veterans or widows. Less than 2% are getting their benefits – less than 2%.

Josh 8:28

And why is that?

Suzette 8:29

They don’t know or they’re misled and it’s easy to do it, because you can’t go to the VA and do it for free 100%. And I tell everybody that all the time, but it’s not an easy process. It’s very late.

Lucas 8:41

Imagine that.

Suzette 8:42

Right, right. It’s not easy. And every client is different. So one client’s application may be 50 pages and the next one may be 150 pages. And you can’t miss anything or they get denied. And so it’s very labor heavy to pull this off.

Josh 9:01

So informing, educating them a lot on potentially even what they’re eligible for and then your team walks them through the application process, right? Is that accurate?

Suzette 9:11

Yes. So our fee is for a long-term care assessment. And so it’s illegal to charge anybody to do the application for them, to prepare, prosecute or present a claim. So if I’m going to charge you to look over your claim, that’s illegal. So what we charge for is a long-term care assessment. And the long-term care assessment is a 16 page assessment we do based on them, their finances, what they’re eligible for, what benefits they could be getting. And after that, we say, “Would you like us to help you with the application process?” And of course they say, “Yes.” And then we will say, “Okay, these are the documents we need” because there’s documents that you can’t get. I mean, I can’t get their bank statements and they don’t want me to, right? Their social security statement, things like that I have to have. And then we build the application from there. You have this many 401ks or IRAs or stocks, bonds or none and we build the application based on what they have.

Lucas 10:12

I think this is relevant, it’s really important right now because affordability in senior housing is a big conversation – attainable housing, affordable housing. How are our grandparents, how are our older adults going to be able to afford to live in senior care? The middle market. A big article that came out last year, “The Forgotten Middle.” I think the NIC organization put that out there. And you’re saying that there’s a huge percentage of people moving in that potentially have this benefit to help them pay for this care? I mean, it’s just a really important conversation that seems to be being missed on a big scale.

Suzette 10:57

I think what happens a lot of times is they’re coming in and to finish your question, you asked earlier, they’re coming in and they’re asked, “Are you a veteran or widow?” And that’s kind of as far as it goes. They’ll hand out our brochures, they’ll ask the person to call us. We have been embedding into CRM systems lately so that they can check the box and then they’ll come straight to us. And that way that opportunity’s not missed. We are going to reach out to them if they asked us to. And so we’re just trying to do everything that we can to make sure that the veteran is eligible for this and that they get it, right? So they learn about it.

Josh 11:32

Well, and it’s something that they’ve earned too. And you just think about the service time that them, their family members have done and it’s just resources that if not accessed, they’re sitting there on a shelf that could be really helping subsidize this huge growing expense of care in our latter part of our lives. So what an awesome mission, and it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Suzette 11:58

Thank you. So the VA benefit right now, by the way, guys, is $2,229 a month for a veteran.

Josh 12:04


Suzette 12:04

It’s over $2,600 for a married veteran, over $1,400 for a widow. That goes a long way in paying for your senior care.

Lucas 12:11


Suzette 12:11

And so it’s a benefit, like you said, that they’ve earned. It’s part of their pension package. The VA earmarks this money every year in their budget for these veterans and widows. Now it’s up to the veteran & widow to get their money.

Josh 12:25

And so you’re saying that the government doesn’t go chasing them around trying to give them this money?

Suzette 12:30


Josh 12:31

Oh, man. Go figure Lucas. Go figure.

Suzette 12:33

Isn’t that amazing?

Lucas 12:35

Yeah, it’s amazing.

Josh 12:35

It’s like you’ve earned it, you know?

Suzette 12:36


Lucas 12:37

Well, what is amazing is Patriot Angels and you, Suzette and we appreciate you coming on the show, talking about this need. And you’re a person that’s been a fighter your whole life and you continue to fight and have become very successful at this. And it’s great to hear your story.

Suzette 12:55

Thank you. And thank you for inviting me on, and better yet, I get to be a Bridge The Gap Ambassador this year.

Josh 13:01

So exciting!

Lucas 13:03

We got upgraded. We’re attracting big time people!

Josh 13:07

I’m telling you what an honor.

Suzette 13:08

I’m excited.

Josh 13:09

Thank you for – people don’t realize that that’s a passion project for us and all of the ambassadors like yourself that joined to help inform, educate, and influence the industry. It’s making our industry better that we love and that we serve. So thank you for that time commitment.

Suzette 13:25

You bet.

Lucas 13:26

And for those that are listening, if you want to know more about our ambassador program, if you want to know more about Bridge The Gap and all of our content is located on Hey, hit us up on LinkedIn. We want to get a message from you. Check out this show and many more on Bridge The Gap. Thank you so much for listening to another great episode. 

263: Suzette Graham