In Military Families, Caregivers Need Help

For more than four decades, I have worked to increase awareness of the importance of mental health to overall well-being. Of particular interest to me are the often-overlooked difficulties faced by family and professional caregivers. Studies show that caregivers typically experience serious problems: chronic emotional and physical fatigue; family and marital conflicts; social isolation, including loss of friends, recreational opportunities, privacy, and hobbies; and feelings of anger, guilt, grief, resentment, hopelessness and anxiety.

When caregivers suffer, the quality of care they're able to provide diminishes, and they may even come to require care themselves. This is why the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI) was founded 25 years ago at my alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia. The institute works to understand the caregiving process and to assist those giving care, emphasizing preventive mental health measures to mitigate the stress.

In the years since 9/11, more than 2.5 million men and women have been deployed. Nearly two-thirds of them went to war before their 29th birthday. When they return, they still have their entire lives ahead of them and sadly for many, a lifetime of obstacles to overcome. More than 50,000 have been seriously wounded in action, and an estimated one in five returns with post-traumatic stress or major depression. Both the physical and emotional wounds can place great strains on families. As one young military wife describes her situation, "I honestly didn't realize after his wounds were healed that our lives would change. Neither one of us knew the great joys, terrible sorrows, nor life lessons that were in our future together."

According to a report released this week by the RAND Corporation, more than one million people are caring for a service member who saw active duty after 9/11. Young spouses and aging parents bear the bulk of this burden, and many hesitate to ask for help, carrying this weight silently. 53 percent of these caregivers have no network they can turn to, according to the RAND report. Many keep their hardships to themselves out of concern about their privacy, fear of stigma, or just because they are reluctant to admit they are overwhelmed.

Our military caregivers are hurting and need support. While governmental and community organizations offer many programs for the returning service members and veterans, those caring for them receive little help. Options that do exist for them focus mostly on the immediate essentials -- food, shelter and work -- and less on helping families lay a strong foundation that will enable them to meet their own needs over the long term. Many are struggling to balance family life and work. The impact of this struggle is seen in strained family relationships, poor health, and workplace issues.

To this end, RCI, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, recently launched Operation Family Caregiver, which helps the families of returning service members and veterans adjust to the "new normal" and cope more effectively. Leveraging scientific, evidence-based practices, the program offers specially trained coaches who equip families with techniques to problem-solve and to better manage life challenges. Operation Family Caregiver is free and confidential and can be reached in person in one of four communities across the nation, or by phone or Skype. Families can find information here.

Among other recommendations, the recent report from RAND specifies that military caregivers must be empowered in order to reduce the stress and strain of their tasks. Building their skills and confidence are critical steps in ensuring their long-term well-being. What gives me tremendous gratification is that we already see how Operation Family Caregiver is making a difference. Caregivers who have completed the training are more satisfied with their lives, report fewer health issues, and are generally more prepared to take care of their families. This program has been proven effective in decreasing depression, significant because we know that more than half are living with depression. Operation Family Caregiver is helping to create strong and healthy families among those who have given the most to our nation.