04/04/2014 06:03 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Military Caregivers in Need of Care Themselves

Not the usual profile you might think of, these caregivers of wounded warriors.  Most of them are young.  Many are parenting young children while holding down full-time jobs.

Their responsibilities include everything from helping to dress/bathe/feed injured loved ones to managing their medical appointments, overseeing treatment, and advocating for care while navigating (without a map) a complex system of benefits and any available resources.  All these hats to wear at the same time, plus holding the family finances together both by working and by making sure the bills get paid. No wonder they’re at increased risk of illness themselves! It’s not just the physical strain of caregiving; it’s all the other moving parts. Easy to see how they might tend to take care of themselves last. It’s why “Military caregivers also suffer disproportionately from mental health problems and emotional distress,” according to a recent Rand Corp. report.

We’re all busy...but try to imagine yourself functioning as a single parent, a nurse, a rehab tech, a nutritionist, a housekeeper, a business assistant, a transportation provider and a case manager.  Oh, and being the emotional support for the whole family.

If you’re not a young parent, you get to take that element out and replace it with worrying about who’ll care for your son or daughter when you can’t, or when your resources run out.  For caregivers at both ends of the spectrum, missed days of work because of care-giving responsibilities translate into job problems and reduced income, which further stresses the family.

Is there help?  Yes and no.  The VA has a program for military caregivers and there are community-based organizations that offer some help. But many programs are in the early stages and not fully developed.  From the Rand Corporation study I mentioned earlier:

New federal programs intended to help military caregivers have resulted from federal legislation approved in 2010, including expanded offerings of compensation, training, and respite care. But relatively few caregivers qualify for this aid and it is unclear whether the efforts will meet the dynamic and evolving needs of those who do qualify..


We hear this frequently on our hotline, the Lifeline for Vets at the NVF.  The question of eligibility and requirements is a recurring theme.  Distance from VA facilities means accessing the resources that are can be difficult or impossible. Getting the word out about resources is an issue, and many rural areas are too far away to be included in wider community-based organizations. 

So what do you do?  Soldier on.  And where does that lead?  Burn-out.  Many military caregivers are so deep “in the trenches” that they cannot see above the edge of each demanding day. This is one of the results of ten years of war with a higher survival rate than previous wars.  We have many more veterans with complex injuries that will last a lifetime. That puts an unprecedented stress on families and caregivers. 

That’s not exactly the good news we were hoping for, is it?  What can you do?   Raise the issue with local and national leaders.  Support the organizations who work with veterans, like the National Veterans Foundation

If you know someone trying to care for a vet, or a vet who needs help, give them the Lifeline for Vets number: 888.777.4443.  It’s what we do.