By Brenda L. Mooney
SANTA MONICA, CA – More than 5.5 million spouses, other relatives and friends care for injured and disabled veterans in the United States, and about 20% of those are aiding current and former servicemembers who served after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to new research.
Authors of a recent RAND Corporation study point out that no real support network exists for the caregivers and that they often put their own well-being at risk. The report, commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, calls for healthcare providers at the VA and elsewhere to do more to recognize caregivers and involve them in treatment decisions.
Those supporting veterans who served after 9/11 are younger than other caregivers, are usually employed outside the home and are more likely to care for someone who has a behavioral health problem, according to the report, “Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers.” The care providers also are more likely to be veterans themselves but not connected to any support network that aids caregiving.
About one-fourth of the caregivers are aging parents, the study reports, with another 40% between 18 and 30 years old. The younger cohort includes spouses of the injured and disabled.
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Caregivers provide a wide range of assistance with activities of daily living — such as bathing and eating — as well as other activities such as making medical appointments, managing finances, childcare and keeping under control situations that could exacerbate mental health symptoms, according to the study. While caregivers who help post-9/11 military members typically assist with fewer basic functional tasks than their older counterparts, the researchers note, they are more likely to help a veteran cope with emotional and behavioral challenges. The value of the care they provide is estimated at about $3 billion a year.
Despite that significant contribution, researchers found few public or private programs to support military caregivers.
“After more than a decade of war, the toll faced by the nation’s caregivers who aid veterans and military members is large and can be expected to grow in the decades ahead,” said Terri Tanielian, the study’s co-leader and a senior social research analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Until now, the needs of this group have been poorly understood.”
Past research has focused on caregiving for the elderly and disabled, according to the report, but this survey — polling 28,000 military caregivers between July 1 and Oct. 15, 2013, and focusing on a representative sample of more than 1,000 — is the largest and most comprehensive look at nonprofessionals caring for veterans in the United States.
Researchers also interviewed 82 organizations to determine the availability of programs that provide respite care, training or other services needed by caregivers. Of the 100 programs identified as potentially offering such respite care, the majority targeted the veterans themselves. The programs directed at caregivers, meanwhile, tended to be focused on older family and friends, not those who aid the majority of post-9/11 military members.