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More support needed for caregivers of military wounded, study finds

On a Saturday morning in June of 2012, Christine Schei's plate remains empty while she feeds her 28-year-old son, Erik, breakfast. Erik was shot in the head in Iraq in 2005 and has little use of his body.

SAN DIEGO — The nation needs to better acknowledge and support the efforts of the “hidden heroes” from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: the estimated 1.1 million civilian, volunteer caregivers tending to the needs of wounded and disabled veterans, according to recommendations contained in a RAND Corp. study released Monday.

While family members and others have long cared for veterans, the veterans from two recent wars are more likely to have mental health and substance problems, making the task of providing care even more difficult, according to the study, which was funded by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

A common task for caregivers is helping the veteran “in coping with stressful situations or other emotional and behavioral challenges,” the study found. Other tasks include housework, meals, transportation and overall “health management and maintenance.”

“Caring for a loved one is a demanding and difficult task,” the researchers concluded, “often doubly so for caregivers who are juggling care duties with family life and work. The result is often that caregivers pay a price for their devotion.”

The price often involves workplace problems caused by absenteeism, strain on other family relationships and health problems. Many caregivers suffer depression, the report said.

Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, whose husband, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, was severely wounded during World War II, said she hopes the study serves as “a call to action” to help military caregivers. “The findings confirm this is an urgent societal crisis,” Dole said.

More than 40 percent of caregivers are between 18 and 30 years old, often spouses in young marriages that may not survive the stress. A quarter of caregivers are aging parents, a fact that suggests that soon there may be a “need to find alternative care for the veteran.”

Both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense try to include caregivers in their treatment of veterans, the study found. The VA has also begun a study of the effectiveness of caregivers in hopes of compiling “best practices.”

Still, much more needs to be done to help caregivers shoulder the burden of a spouse or family member with PTSD or traumatic brain injury or other condition, the study concludes.

“We found that 53 percent of post-9/11 caregivers have no caregiving network — an individual or group that regularly provides help with caregiving — to support them,” the RAND study concluded.

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