Help for Caregivers and Familes of Veterans
Who Is a Caregiver?
When you hear the word “caregiver,” you may only picture someone who spends all day taking care of a person who is elderly or has serious physical disabilities.
Certainly, many people who help feed, bathe, or assist a person in getting in and out of bed would likely call themselves a caregiver.
However, many more people are caregivers who would not necessarily label themselves as such. If you are caring for a veteran, you are a caregiver if you do the following types of things for that person:1
- Make appointments for their medical care.
- Provide transportation.
- Ensure they take their medication.
- Discuss their care plans with doctors and social workers.
You need not be a family member to be a caregiver. If you provide these types of services to a neighbor or friend, then you are a caregiver.
Stresses of Veteran Caregiving
Being a caregiver is not an easy task, even if you don’t do it around the clock. People who provide care to others experience a variety of stressors and negative outcomes associated with the stresses of the role. Caregiver stress is the term given to the toll that taking care of another person has on the caregiver. It results from being on-call 24/7 with no time for other interests, as well as feeling overwhelmed by a person’s needs.2
When psychologists and other professionals measure caregiver stress, they consider the many factors that can affect the level of stress, including:3
- Social isolation.
- Financial strain.
- The effects of caregiving on one’s health due to lack of sleep and exercise.
The impact of caregiver stress varies from person to person and is determined by factors like age, physical health, personality characteristics, and the availability of support. Unfortunately, many people do burn out and suffer both physical and psychological consequences.3
Another study indicated that caring for a spouse or child was more stressful than tending to a parent, and that caring for a spouse or child had a greater impact on women’s mental health than a men’s.4
While caring for someone who has physical disabilities or cognitive conditions, such as dementia, is certainly stressful, if the person being cared for has mental health and/or substance abuse issues, the stress can be extreme.
Signs of caregiver burnout include:5
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite.
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope.
- Severe anxiety.
- Losing control of emotions.
- Mistreating the person you care for.
- Difficulty concentrating.
If a low or depressed mood lasts 2 weeks or more, you may have depression and could benefit from reaching out for help. Signs of depression include:5
- Feelings of hopelessness.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Inability to sleep or wanting to sleep all the time.
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Feeling guilty or worthless.
- Loss of pleasure from hobbies or other interests.
- Fear of leaving home.
- Noticeable decrease in sex drive.
- Crying spells.
- Being unable to make simple decisions.
VA Caregiver Support
Caregivers may be eligible to receive caregiver services with the VA, and the first step you can take is to reach out and ask. Even if you aren’t eligible, the VA can refer you to a different provider or agency.
How to Access VA Benefits for Caregivers
The VA has contact information for a caregiver support coordinator in each state. You can access this directory online. The VA also supports a strong network of resources for caregivers, including a support line, which can be reached at 1-855-260-3274 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST.
The VA further supports caregivers by sponsoring a peer support mentoring program, in which the VA matches caregivers to support one another through the difficult process of being a caregiver.
Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers
If you are a family member who either lives with, or is willing to live with, a veteran full-time, you may qualify for the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. The veteran must:
- Need at least 6 months of continuous care
- Be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, mental health disorder, or emotional trauma, which was either caused or made worse due to military service.
Each qualifying veteran may have a primary and secondary caregiver. If you qualify, you can receive:
- Financial assistance to travel for the veteran’s medical appointments.
- A cash stipend.
- Caregiver education and training.
- Mental health services for yourself.
- 30 days of respite care per year.
- Access to veteran’s health care benefits for your own use.
To find out if you qualify, you can call the support line or visit the website.
When You Can’t Do It Alone
As a caregiver, it is common to feel responsible for the veteran’s well-being and want to take on their struggles yourself. However, if the veteran you care for has issues with mental health disorders, such as PTSD, depression, issues with substance use, or suicidal thoughts, these challenges may be too much for you take on alone.
PTSD and substance abuse commonly co-occur in veterans.6 When a veteran needs treatment for both disorders, VA substance abuse programs can offer quality treatment. You can search online for a VA drug rehab; however, sometimes VA treatment centers have long waiting lists, aren’t close to your home, or cannot accommodate your needs. In those cases, private community care providers can help.
One such program is the Salute to Recovery program offered through American Addiction Centers (AAC). AAC offers programs specifically for veterans in Salute to Recovery, and treatment focuses on both substance abuse and mental health disorders at the same time.
What’s unique about Salute to Recovery is that many of the staff members are veterans themselves, which provides a greater understanding of the stresses and challenges regarding substance abuse and treatment needs.
Salute to Recovery is offered at 7 AAC facilities across the country, including Desert Hope in Las Vegas, Nevada. All 7 facilities are community care providers that work with the VA to provide substance abuse treatment when the VA is unable to do so.
FAQs About Caregiving
Some of the most commonly asked questions about caregiving include the following:
Q: Where do I begin? I have never done this before.
A: Do not try to do this alone. Reach out to friends and family for help. Look for community resources, such as support groups.
Q: How can I pay for help with caregiving?
A: Reach out to the VA, as well as community groups. For a veteran, the VA is the best source to start to get help.
Q: Do most caregivers care for their loved one full-time?
A: No, one-half of all caregivers also work full time.6 If you’re trying to balance both, know that you’re not alone.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a caregiver?
A: For many caregivers, it is the feeling that their own needs are not as important as the person they are caring for. Remember that your needs are just as important and that you can’t care for someone else if you’re not healthy (mentally and physically).
Q: How can I take care of myself during this time?
A: Ask for help from family and friends. You can also ask for professional help, e.g., via counseling or therapy or by hiring some extra help. Take care of yourself physically by getting the proper amount of sleep, eating healthy, and exercising. Take breaks when you can throughout the day.
Support for the Caregiver
Sometimes caregivers can feel forgotten, as the person being cared for often becomes the main focus of attention. It is easy to feel that you are not as important or that your needs don’t matter. Some tips for you include:7
- Ask for help from friends, relatives, and other sources.
- Do not isolate yourself. Ask friends and family to visit if you can’t get out.
- If you have any extra money, use it to pay someone to sit with your loved one for a while, even if it is just for a few hours.
- If spending money for respite care isn’t possible, try to swap care with someone else. For example, if you have a friend who is caring for a family member, find a way to have them cover for you for a time and then you can do the same for them.
- Get counseling for yourself and the person you care for if you’re having relationship conflict. It is better to go ahead and address tension in the relationship before it gets worse.
- Seek out support groups.
Other tips for self-care include:8
- Get enough sleep and eat well as much as possible.
- Practice deep breathing and relaxation throughout the day.
- Try yoga or Ta-chi to help you relax.
- Have compassion for yourself.
Helpful Caregiver Resources
- The Caregiver Resource Center of Orange County has numerous links for a variety of services.
- The Orange County Office on Aging can be reached at: 80-510-2020 and offers family caregiver support information focused on the elderly.
- EasterSeals of Southern California has support and services for some situations veterans may be facing, such as a traumatic brain injury.
- Triumph Foundation in Southern California provides support groups for people with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers.
- US Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). VA caregiver support.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Caregiver stress.
- University of California, San Francisco. (2018). Caregiver stress.
- Penning, M. J., & Wu, Z. (2016). Caregiver stress and mental health: Impact of caregiving relationship and gender. The Gerontologist, 56(6), 1102-1113.
- American Heart Association. (2015). What is caregiver burnout?
- US Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse.
- Craig Hospital. (2015). Long-term caregivers. For better and for worse.
- Harvard Medical School. (2018). Self-care for the caregiver.