Two weeks ago, we released the most comprehensive survey to date of caregivers of U.S. military members. An estimated 5.5 million family members, friends and acquaintances provide a range of services to current and former military members with physical or mental disabilities or illnesses, saving the country billions of dollars each year.
However, caregiving can be very costly: Compared to other caregivers, military caregivers experience more workplace problems, more family stress, and poorer health. This is especially true for those who served after September 11, 2001.
In our study, commissioned by Caring for Military Families: a report for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, we make recommendations to address gaps in current policies, programs, and other initiatives to support military caregivers.
Early indications are that policymakers are beginning to focus on this critical population. Last Thursday, Senator Patty Murray introduced the Military and Veterans Care Improvement Act, which aims to expand benefits specifically for caregivers of veterans and soldiers with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
A day later at the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter and more than 50 military spouses joined former Senator Elizabeth Dole in announcing a coalition of diverse organizations that have come together to address the gaps in support identified in our research, Dole said at the launch of “Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition of Military Caregivers.”
“The RAND report is a statement. The goal of this coalition is to encourage individuals and organizations to work together to raise awareness and support for U.S. military caregivers.”
It is encouraging to see that this underserved population, largely “in the shadows,” is now the focus of conversation in the Senate and on the East Coast. As momentum continues, all stakeholders should keep in mind four general recommendations to support military nurses:
There are three ways to train military caregivers:
- Improve training and education opportunities that caregivers can help others more effectively.
- When family caregivers learn how to help others, they can help others more effectively. Helping family caregivers access health care services and ensuring that they have access to available services can reduce the stress and strain of their role and mitigate some of the negative consequences of caregiving.
- Raising public awareness of the contributions of family caregivers and the potential consequences of caring for military members can increase support for this group and encourage more family caregivers to seek help.
Create a supportive environment for caregivers
Recognizing the individual needs of military caregivers in different situations can help them balance the demands of caregiving with other responsibilities:
- Health care providers should recognize caregivers as part of the care team and ensure regular contact with caregivers, case managers, nurses and physicians.
- Employers could help by offering support services, raising awareness, and providing more flexible work schedules.
Address gaps in programs
Current programs that address the needs of military nurses tend to focus on veterans or military personnel. Offering specific support for family caregivers can help fill a number of gaps. In addition, current programs often exclude military caregivers who are not immediate family members or who are caring for someone under age 60, which is also true of most post-9/11 caregivers. Expanding eligibility to these groups could also fill important gaps.
Time spent caring for loved ones is significantly associated with negative outcomes such as depression. Extended treatment that directly reduces treatment time could potentially prevent negative treatment outcomes and should therefore be more widely available.
The way forward
Planning should consider not only the needs of current caregivers but also those of future caregivers. Parents caring for their sons and daughters, or young spouses caring for a loved one, need to make financial and legal arrangements to ensure continuity of care when they are no longer able or willing to assume caregiving responsibilities.
Support services need to be integrated and coordinated across different organizations and sectors to increase sustainability and avoid the caregiver maze. Ensuring quality services can contribute to the long-term health and well-being of caregivers.
It is also important to continue research to monitor the evolving care needs of military members and the long-term impact on caregivers. Our research will provide information on the care needs and care burden of military members that will help us make predictions for the future.
However, these are only predictions. More in-depth cross-sectional studies in the coming years could provide valuable evidence to support our findings. Long-term studies and evaluations can help us identify needs over time and determine the extent to which programs and services are meeting those needs.
Just as military caregivers assist wounded, ill, or disabled members of the Armed Forces and veterans in a variety of ways and provide tremendous benefits to the United States as a whole, the activities we describe are broad and can serve as a foundation for the Coalition's multifaceted efforts to promote the long-term well-being of these unsung heroes.
As First Lady Michelle Obama said to military nurses last Friday, “We all have to work together to get to the point where you feel like you live in a country that appreciates your service, because that's what it is.”
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.