Caring for a family member who is physically ill or suffering from emotional disorders can be an emotionally and physically exhausting experience for the caregiver. When the family member/loved one is a veteran, there may be additional stressors that factor into the caregiving involved.
Although caregiving for a veteran may seem overwhelming at times, know that help is available, and caring for yourself is equally important as caring for the veteran in your life.
What Is a Caregiver?
When you think of the term “caregiver,” you may envision someone who provides nursing-type care—bathing, feeding, giving medications, etc. While being a caregiver certainly involves these types of responsibilities for many people, many other activities are involved with being a caregiver. In fact, you may be a caregiver even without realizing it.
You might be caregiver if you:1
- Coordinate medical appointments and/or driving a person to these appointments.
- Pick up prescriptions and/or making sure the person takes his or her medication, including through injections.
- Assist a person with bathing, dressing, and general self-care, or ensuring that the person does these things.
- Help a person get in and out of bed.
- Assist with grocery shopping and meal preparation.
- Assist with physical therapy exercises.
- Help feed a person or clean and prepare feeding tubes.
- Talk with nurses, social workers, doctors, and therapists to coordinate care.
- Assist your loved one in sorting out insurance and payment issues.
The person you are caring for does not need to be a family member; you may also be a caregiver for a friend, neighbor, etc.
The Stresses of Veteran Caregiving
Being a caregiver for a family member or friend can be stressful in any situation. If you are a veteran’s caregiver, you may experience unique stressors.
If your loved one was deployed overseas, particularly in a combat situation, the return home can be a difficult one. Many veterans have a period of adjustment when they return to the United States, particularly if they are also separating from the military and returning to civilian life. It is not uncommon for returning soldiers to experience:2
- Trouble concentrating.
- Poor self-worth.
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
- Low energy.
- Decreased desire to socialize.
- Reliving of traumatic memories
- Avoidance of situations that remind them of trauma.
- Thoughts of suicide.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Veterans can also utilize the Veteran Crisis Line via text 838255 or via online chat with a crisis counselor.
Some returning military personnel may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In these situations, the emotional and physical symptoms may be very intense and difficult to cope with.2(p. 3-5) The issues impacting the veteran will also likely impact the family/caregivers in a significant way as well.2
Being a caregiver in these situations is difficult, in part due to:3
- Constant worry about your loved one and what the future holds.
- Lack of personal time or space, as most of your time may be devoted to caring for your loved one.
- Lack of sleep and physical exhaustion, particularly if your loved one requires around-the-clock care or is unable to sleep and keeps you awake at night.
- Social isolation, which results from your inability to go out and be involved in your usual routine of visiting friends and family, going to church or other social activities, or even being able to work outside the home.
- Loss of relationship quality as you become another person’s caregiver. For example, you may find yourself feeling like more of a parent than a partner to your spouse who may need constant care and oversight, or your adult child may suddenly require full-time oversight by you as a parent again.
- Feeling forgotten by others. Your spouse, who was once a great support for you, may no longer able to fulfill that role due to their mental and/or physical illness. Your friends may project a great deal of sympathy to your family member who is ill, but you might find yourself thinking, “What about me?” You may feel left out and without emotional support.
Veterans’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues
There are many struggles your family member or loved one may face as a veteran. From reintegrating into society to dealing with a serious physical injury, there are many challenges that may be difficult to overcome and that may weigh on the entire family.
However, the challenges become even greater with mental illness or substance use come into play. These are trying issues to navigate on their own, but they can also compound other problems, such as looking for work, dealing with pain or injury, or dealing with the emotional wounds of combat.
It is not uncommon for veterans to suffer from a mental health disorder such as PTSD and/or to struggle with substance abuse and addiction. Veterans may use alcohol and/or drugs to numb difficult emotions related to service/war, to ease symptoms of PTSD or depression, to self-medicate pain, etc. These issues are beyond what a caregiver can usually handle on their own.
PTSD & Substance Abuse Help for Veterans
While you may think it’s your responsibility as a caregiver to take everything on, understand that there are situations you cannot and should not attempt to navigate by yourself. When your loved one shows signs of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts or attempts, depression, or PTSD, or begins using alcohol and drugs to cope, you need to seek professional help.
The first step you can take as a caregiver is to reach out to the VA treatment center in your area. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the need for substance abuse treatment and mental health care and operates many VA rehab centers across the United States.
VA rehabilitation offers treatment that can respond to the specific need of veterans and can be very helpful in treating mental health issues and veterans’ substance abuse needs. There are many VA drug rehab and VA alcohol rehab programs to choose from.
In cases where the VA is unable to provide necessary treatment, they may partner with community care providers to get you the help you need. American Addiction Centers, the parent company of Greenhouse Treatment Center, has two approved community care providers in Nevada and Florida. Each facility has a Salute to Recovery Program designed to meet the needs of veterans who need treatment for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Whether you choose a VA rehab or a private drug rehab facility, the most important action is to get help for your loved one in an environment that understands the needs of veterans in treatment. Never hesitate to ask any treatment program—whether it’s a VA treatment center or a private program—what types of therapies they offer, how they treat veterans’ needs specifically, and any other questions you may have.
VA Resources for Caregivers
It’s very noble to devote yourself to the care of a loved one, but it’s vital that you don’t neglect yourself in the process.
There are resources through the VA designed to help support you as you take care of your loved one. These resources include:
- Caregiver Support Coordinators—An online directory to connect you to a resource person in your state.
- VA Caregiver Support—A website that can link you to online courses in caregiving and to phone numbers for support groups.
- Family Health Benefits— Information about assistance you may be eligible for, including respite care, travel cost reimbursements, and, in some cases, monthly stipends for being a caregiver.
- Caregiver Eligibility Check—An interactive questionnaire to help you determine whether you’re eligible to receive family benefits.
Other Resources and Meetings
There are other resources available for you to reach out and get support as a caregiver:
- Hearts of Valor—An online support group for anyone caring for an ill or injured veteran. New local meetings are being added frequently.
- Caregivers on the Homefront—In-person and online support for families of veterans who have been injured while in military service.
- Lotsa Helping Hands—An online community that helps provide meals to families coping with injured and ill family members. You can create an account and ask for assistance from people nearby to help with meals for your family.
- Operation Family Caregiver—Support resource that offers a nationwide phone line, as well as the ability to video conference with a support person. For Texas residents, there are meetings in El Paso and Temple.
Self-care helps you be a better caregiver to others. As the old saying goes, “you cannot pour from an empty cup,” and if you wear yourself down physically and mentally, you may become physically or emotionally unable to care for your loved one.
To care for yourself: 3
- Recruit help through friends and family. It is hard to ask for help, but do not be afraid to reach out. You may be surprised by who will help if they are asked.
- Avoid social isolation. Ask people to come over. You will find many people want to visit but are afraid to ask to do so out of a fear of imposing on your privacy or “bothering” you.
- Try to improve your relationship with the person you are caring for. If needed, seek outside help and mediation with your spiritual leader, a professional therapist, or even a trusted friend.
- Find a support group, even if it is by phone or online. Talking to others going through a similar situation can be helpful.
- Get out of the house. Find someone to stay with your loved one and just get away from caregiving for some time. Take care of the things that worry you the most, such as wound management or changing a feeding tube, and then let someone else take care of the mundane tasks while you are out.
- Seek respite care. There are services in the community, which you may or may not be able to afford. However, you may find groups in your community that offer respite, such as local elder care resources or churches.
- Look into all possible financial benefits available to you through the VA, Social Security, private foundations, or any possible resources to help you financially afford care and treatment for your loved one.
- Look into the VA’s self-care activity book, which provides guidance on attending to your own needs as you care for another.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). Support for Caregivers.
- VA Healthcare. (2008). Post Deployment Stress: What Families Should Know, What Families Can Do.
- Craig Hospital. (2015). Long Term Caregivers: For Better and for Worse.