Dole-Fdn-logoMy post today, in reflection of Veterans Day as well as National Family Caregivers Month, is co-authored with Easter Seals friend and partner Senator Elizabeth Dole.

As another Veterans Day passes, and the nation honors the brave men and women who have worn the uniform, we also pay special tribute to the many who returned home with life-changing physical or mental wounds, injuries and illnesses.

Yet, as we recognize these heroes, it is imperative to remember that behind every wounded warrior stands a family that also has been changed forever. These families — spouses, parents, siblings and children – become caregivers, shouldering the support their veterans will need, in ways little and large, not just on November 11, but every day, and sometimes for many years.

Though the caregivers often shy away from the spotlight, they are all around us. According to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, some 5.5 million people are caregivers to a current or former service member. An estimated 19.6 percent of these caregivers are supporting a veteran with a disability who served after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the tempo of deployments increased dramatically compared to previous years.

The choice to care for a wounded warrior at home is a loving and compassionate one. It often comes at great personal expense to the caregivers while relieving our nation of a tremendous cost. America’s caregivers provide just under $14 billion in uncompensated care annually.

As invaluable as these caregivers are, many carry their responsibility largely alone. There is no one-stop shopping for the training caregivers need to handle the array of challenges they may encounter. Whether it is the daily care of a person with mobility impairment, the complexities of a traumatic brain injury, or the needs of a veteran with post-traumatic stress, caregivers feel as if they must figure it out for themselves.

Caregivers must navigate the byzantine healthcare and veterans benefits system. They must provide in-home therapeutic and nursing services and locate appropriate medical devices. As time goes by, they may have to address the long-term challenges of an injury, such as depression.

Military caregivers tend to experience more family strain, workplace problems and health issues themselves than non-caregivers. Post-9/11 caregivers, who are younger, less connected to a support network, in newer marriages and more likely to fall prey to depressive disorders, fare worst of all.

This is a silent crisis, one in which those most in need of help are too overloaded, stressed or reluctant to ask for it. We want to give these military caregivers the voice and the support they need.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation was created to bring attention to the critical issues facing military and veteran caregivers. Nearly 100 active caregivers have been named Dole Caregiver Fellows, providing them a voice in the media, on Capitol Hill, and with senior leaders in every sector. The Foundation also acts as a catalyst for organizations that can provide caregivers with support, training and resources, and in 2014 the Foundation launched a National Coalition of such organizations that has grown to 308 members.

Partnering closely with the Foundation, Easter Seals, long a champion for those with disabilities and the people who care for them, is providing key training and resources for military caregivers. Through a contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Easter Seals Dixon Center offers an array of training to caregivers, including home safety, veteran personal care, management of difficult veteran behaviors and depression, and caregiver self-care. Since early 2011, more than 30,000 caregivers have received this training.

In conjunction with the Foundation and other leading caregiving and military service organizations, Easter Seals has launched a series of free, practical webinars on topics important to caregivers, such as maintaining employment while caregiving. More than 2,500 caregivers have already benefited from this new program. Easter Seals affiliates around the country are also offering other services including in-home respite care, group therapy and models for problem-solving for military caregiver families.

Together, Easter Seals and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation are leading a national movement to bring about change, but much more is needed to reach caregivers who need assistance. We need to increase high-quality training, strengthen proven caregiving resources and ensure that our military families have access to as much assistance as they need.

Abraham Lincoln might have been talking about today’s service members and military caregivers when he said, “Honor to the soldier, and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother, and serves, as he best can, the same cause.”

If we are to honor our wounded warriors, we need to come together at every level—governmental and nonprofit leaders, employers, educators and healthcare and wellness experts—to produce lasting change for our military caregivers. Please join us in honoring and supporting these unsung heroes.

Randy Rutta is president and CEO of Easter Seals. The Honorable Elizabeth Dole, former United States Senator (NC), is founder and CEO of Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation.


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