Celebrating Military Families and Caregivers

November is month of the Military Family.

Every year communities around the nation honor the contributions and sacrifices of the military family. Similarly, and quite fitting, November is also the month of the Caregiver. According to Rand there are 16.9 million caregivers, roughly a tenth of the population of this great country. That an entire month is devoted to this observance, underscores the importance families impart, notably among active and retired service members, even more so in care of our wounded, ill, and injured population.

A Show of Strength: In 2008 Secretary Ash Carter demonstrated his support by directing November to be Warrior Care Recognition Month, a DoD wide effort to increase awareness of programs and resources available to our wounded, ill and injured service members. In considering this demographic, we must also recognize the families and caregivers who support and care for them.

Who Are Caregivers: Caregivers of wounded, ill, and injured service members are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, neighbors, and yes, friends — really anyone capable and willing to assist active and retired warriors. Frequently without professional compensation, they lend their time, love, and effort, hence, their endearing moniker, “Hidden Heroes”. This same Rand study estimated that there is a total of 5.5 million caregivers. 1.1 million care for post-9/11 service members, while the bulk of caregivers, 4.4 million, are still caring for pre-9/11 veterans. As this group of veterans age, so do the helping hands they rely upon, foreshadowing a real crisis in the coming years.

Changing Demographics of the Caregiver: Like the demographics themselves, the plight of the caregiver has changed, too. As if a yardstick on modernity, the Global War on Terror changed everything. Before 9/11 the caregiver was most likely the child in the household, caring for and looking after an aging parent. Post-9/11, the spouse came to assume this enormous responsibility, more than tripling the percentage of caregivers under 30 years of age. If charging a much younger population with this responsibility — a dutiful obligation so many valiant (principally wives) rose to—when compared to post-9/11 wherein 71% of caregivers enjoyed a social support network, only 37% of these youthful “Hidden Heroes” benefited from a support network themselves. With this lack of social network, it makes sense that pre-9/11 caregivers miss an average of 3.5 days of work per month in execution of their duties.

Burgeoning Invisible Wounds: after 9/11 the nature of the wounded, ill or injured cared for changed, too. Heralded by the opening salvo of “shock and awe” (Operation Iraqi Freedom), and continuing through the long years of Operation Enduring Freedom, those service members with a behavioral health condition requiring some level of caregiver support, dramatically increased from 36% to 64%. This near doubling paralleled the increase in percentage of care for those who had a VA disability rating. A shifting focus of caregiver need followed; so too, the prevalence of iInvisible wounds of depression, PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injury, ranging from estimates as low as 20% to more than 30%.

An Importance Which Cannot be Overstated: The presence of a sustaining, supportive family, similar to other avenues of support, is a prime predictor of a service member’s resilience. Successfully weathering a stormy deployment depends not only on the strength, will and resolve of a family unit, but to also have intact and robust support systems both during and post deployment. Traumatic experiences leading to unaddressed traumatic responses (e.g., numbing, sleep problems, risk-taking behaviors) are negatively associated with marital and relationship satisfaction for both service member and spouse, significantly impacting any caregiving needs which may arise.

Caregiver Need is NOW: Another important statistic, one which is sure to motivate you, into some action, the mental health condition of clinical depression rose from 19% in the military caregiver (compared to a baseline of 20% in the civilian counterpart), to 38%. This is an unfortunate reality of the burden of caregiving. According to the Rand report, only about a third of those caregivers received care for their depression; as the caregiver places emphasis and priority on the wounded, ill or injured service member. Other research has already noted that parents with a deployed spouse demonstrate already higher levels of depressive symptoms (Jensen, Martin, & Watanabe, 1996).

Help Is Near: Fortunately, programs like FOCUS (Families Over-Coming Under Stress) initially developed for military families with children ages 3 to 18, and implemented at 22 major military institutions nationwide, has been adapted and re-engineered to not only couples, but to the special needs of the family of the wounded, ill, and injured.

Caregiver Respite: Many nonprofit organizations like the Semper Fi Fund offer assistance to families experiencing understandable duress while caring for their loved one. Of great concern, Rand found that there are very few programs that provide financial support and assistance to caregivers, much less connect them to needed health care options. Even fewer organizations provided respite care. Proudly, the Semper Fi fund does offer caregiver retreats and workshops, necessary self-care time to reinvigorate and rejuvenate caregivers. In our fourteen years, over $150 million has been given in the form of grant and financial assistance. And because no one understands the special burdens of a caregiver as another caregiver, the Fund organizes support groups to benefit those unsung heroes least likely to ask for help.

A Purpose Driven Life: Despite what burdens the caregiver faces, recent evidence has shown that those who function as caregivers actually live longer than those who don’t! Moreover, 83% of caregivers characterized their experience as positive. Studies have demonstrated that benefits include:

• An enhanced sense of purpose with closer meaning through newly discovered relationships
• Greater meaning of life
• Fulfillment of a lifelong commitment to a spouse or partner
• A rich opportunity to give back to a parent or family member
• An opportunity to discover a renewal of religious faith
• Closer ties through new relationships and a strengthening of existing relationships

If you are a caregiver, with or without current support, or would like to know more on being a “Hidden Hero” please see the web resources located below. After all, Secretary Carter designated November as the Month of the Military Family and Caregiver for a reason.