- - Thursday, May 7, 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. No one is ever prepared for the call that tells them their spouse, parent, sibling, son or daughter has suffered a life-altering physical or mental injury or illness. Too many of our military families face that reality.

With numerous unanswered questions and uncertainties about their loved one’s condition, new caregivers find that nothing in their lives has prepared them for this role. They question how they’ll manage as a primary caregiver along with their other life responsibilities. Looking ahead, many wonder how they can prepare, what the effects of their loved one’s medical condition will be, and what support is available to them as a military caregiver.

Caregivers need educational resources to help them cope with their new normal. This is particularly true for post-9/11 caregivers—as noted in the RAND study commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation—because they are more likely to seek out structured educational settings than pre-9/11 or civilian caregivers. This may be in part because a greater proportion of post-9/11 military caregivers are more challenged by uncertainties associated with managing medical conditions such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Indeed, among the biggest challenges caregivers say they face is knowing how to address these conditions and what to expect from them.

Structured training may take the form of in-person or online classes or webinars, or print materials that have a formalized curriculum. Sharing their experiences with other caregivers and learning from subject matter experts can help them feel better prepared in their role and improve their own mental health.

However, military caregivers face some obstacles identifying caregiver-specific educational activities. There is a great need to coordinate the current inventory of educational and training programs available to help military caregivers flourish in their roles, and a need to identify what’s missing. Often, caregivers are not aware of what’s available or how to connect to educational support. In some cases, they find a profusion of resources but no way of discerning which are the most helpful. With these challenges, many struggle unnecessarily in their roles. The lack of a cohesive system for matching needs to resources also forces most caregivers to rely on word of mouth for their information.

At the other end of the spectrum, the RAND study exposed gaps in many health care professionals’ knowledge of the educational needs of military and veteran caregivers. They can differ from caregivers for the young or elderly, populations on which caregiver resources are often modeled, because providers are not always adequately trained to understand military culture and experiences.

The Education and Training Impact Council is working with the Foundation to develop insights into current educational offerings and encourage the development of new ones where there are gaps. Council members are working with educational organizations, government agencies and support groups to emphasize the need to coordinate resources. This will help eliminate confusion for caregivers over redundant programs, while also highlighting the programs that offer the greatest educational and training value.

Impact Council members are working with state and local organizations to advocate changes to policies and regulations, and are encouraging continued training in a variety of formats to eliminate access barriers. Armed with knowledge, individuals can cross the bridge to become caregivers feeling more capable and confident in their abilities.

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