- - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Becoming a military or veteran caregiver is complicated, consuming, and emotionally and physically debilitating—with no advance warning, no preparation, and often nowhere to turn for help.

As caregivers transition into their new roles, the challenge of caring for someone with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, or other mental and physical injuries is often compounded by increased feelings of isolation.

Because of their often overwhelming responsibilities, caregivers have little time to address their personal needs, relax and decompress, or just escape for a short time from the pressures of their caregiver role.

According to a 2014 RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, military and veteran caregivers suffer poorer physical and mental health outcomes than non-caregivers, and report high instances of isolation, fatigue and feelings of helplessness. Those caring for post-9/11 veterans are four times more likely to suffer from depression than non-caregivers.

Respite services can provide an interlude, giving military caregivers a much needed physical and mental break. Respite can be any of a range of services trained individuals provide to the care recipient so that the caregiver can step away temporarily or focus on other things.

Some types of help include completing household chores, transportation to doctors’ appointments, or caring for the veteran while the caregiver visits with friends.

While the evidence suggests that respite care can have health benefits for the caregiver, taking a break or asking for a helping hand is often a difficult choice for many military caregivers. Within the military culture, there is a reluctance to speak up about needs and problems, fearing judgment or stigma, concerns for privacy, or a sense of failure. The very qualities of compassion and commitment so critical to the caregiver role can also inhibit them from taking advantage of beneficial time off.

On top of these barriers, accessing respite care is also a concern. There are few programs and organizations that provide respite care specifically for military caregivers—the RAND study identified only nine. It can be challenging to find people who are willing and equipped to manage the complexities of caregiving, especially where behavioral issues are concerned. Many caregivers feel the very real pressure of

being the sole person their warrior trusts with the personal tasks that come with providing care.

The Foundation’s Respite Care Impact Council is developing educational materials to help caregivers understand the value of respite care, and to identify options and funding sources. The Council is working to educate respite providers about the unique culture and needs of military caregivers so they may translate that learning into services that are truly beneficial to caregivers’ needs. Emphasis is also on the broader community with initiatives that encourage recognition of respite care as essential to military caregivers.

Another obvious target for action is on Capitol Hill, advocating for full funding of the Lifespan Respite Care Act, signed into law in 2006. The Act is intended to help family caregivers access affordable and high-quality respite care. Only $2.5 million of the $288 million authorized has been allocated. Fully funding the Lifespan Respite Care Act could expand respite services for caregivers of all eras and make them more widely available.

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