THE BLOG
03/30/2011 08:52 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Caring for Our Disabled Veterans: Who Is Responsible?

The UnitedHealth Foundation and the National Alliance for Caregiving recently released the results of a survey of those who care for our disabled veterans. Their findings should be of concern to all of us. After a decade of war in which many veterans have seen three or four tours of duty in the most stressful combat zones imaginable, it is little wonder that our nation is left with thousands and thousands of veterans who suffer from serious physical and/or emotional disabilities. Who cares for these people, and what is it like for these caregivers? Here are the raw facts:

  • 96 percent of veterans' primary caregivers are women, as compared to a nationwide average of 65 percent.
  • 70 percent of veterans' primary caregivers are their spouses or partners, as compared to 6 percent nationally.
  • One in four disabled veterans are being cared for primarily by their parents.
  • More than half of veterans' caregivers say that their disabled veteran has a severe mental illness as a result of combat exposure, nearly 30 percent state that the veteran had a traumatic brain injury, and one in five cite paralysis or spinal cord injury as the cause of the disability.
  • 30 percent of veterans' caregivers have been in that role for 10 years or more, as compared to 15 percent of caregivers nationally.
  • Two-thirds of veterans' caregivers find themselves in "high-burden" situations, which involve helping the veteran with such basic activities as dressing, bathing and feeding.

Clearly, the burden presented by our disabled veterans as a group is staggering. There is no way that such a burden, carried by so few and for so long, cannot have serious negative effects on those doing the caregiving. Indeed, this is the case. More than half of the caregivers in this survey who were parents said that their children were having academic and/or emotional problems. Nearly two-thirds of these caregivers neglect their own basic health needs, such as scheduling regular physicals or dental visits. When they themselves are sick, these caregivers often don't go to the doctor. For these devoted caregivers, there is no end in sight. In many ways, the experiences of long-term caregivers of the severely disabled mirror the stages of grief described in "Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss." In this case the caregiver is grieving the loss of the loved one they once knew.

So what is the answer to the above? As a society, can we really turn our backs on these people? Given our current economic circumstances, we can't reasonably expect government to step in and provide the human resources that these veterans and their caregivers so obviously need. That leaves us with only one viable solution: to accept the reality that these veterans and their care is our collective responsibility and to mobilize the communities around them to pitch in and help.

Recently, two online organizations have seen fit to respond to the crisis among our veterans. Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible for those who would like to volunteer as part of a caregiving community, but who do not know how to go about doing so, to easily do so. Here are two such resources:

Lotsa Helping Hands

This online company was originally created to support family caregivers by empowering their family, friends, neighbors and colleagues who are eager to help with the daily tasks that become a challenge during times of medical crisis (cancer, etc.). After reading about the veterans' survey, the staff at Lotsa Helping Hands made a decision to reach out. The result is a free service that includes:

  • An intuitive group calendar for community members to schedule and sign up for tasks that provide respite for the primary caregiver, including meal delivery, rides to medical appointments, and simply visiting.
  • Customizable sections that facilitate communication among community members, such as posting photos, well wishes and message boards.
    • A vital information section giving the family the ability to securely store and retrieve vital health data, emergency contacts, medications and legal and financial records for designated members of the community.

    Friends and loved ones of someone who is the primary caregiver for a veteran can easily create a "community" at Lotsa Helping Hands and begin to offer respite to the military family. All Lotsa Helping Hands communities are "private." This means that once someone has established a local community, they need to invite others to become members, or accept email requests by those people who want to become members. To learn more, or to start a caregiving community, visit www.lotsahelpinghands.com.

    The Wounded Warrior Project

    The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project is to honor and empower wounded warriors. Its purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured men and women aid and assist each other and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. To get involved and learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org.

    In the course of writing "Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss," about the changing nature of death and grief that has been the result of medical advances, Dr. Barbara Okun and I had the opportunity to interview many people who found themselves bearing considerable caregiving responsibilities. It was in that context that we discovered online sites, like the above, that offer information and support to those who find themselves dealing with an extended crisis. Illnesses such as cancer represent one such crisis, but long-term caring for a disabled loved one is surely another.

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    To join the conversation visit www.newgrief.com.