Support for Veteran Caregivers: When to Ask for Help
Caregivers are people who provide significant care for another person who is unable to fully care for themselves due to an injury, disability, illness or other issue(s). Providing care for a veteran can be overwhelming at times; while your role can be very rewarding, it’s also common to experience stress and even anxiety or depression.1
Caregiver stress, while common, is not something to take lightly. Individuals in caregiving roles need to attend to their own health and well-being and know when to ask for outside help, such as when their loved one needs professional treatment for issues like mental disorders or addiction.
The day-to-day duties of caregiving that far surpass the working hours of a normal 9-5 job can place an enormous toll on the caregiver. It is normal for caregivers to experience overwhelming stress and anxiety. Caregiving takes both a physical and emotional toll and can be isolating for the caregiver whose loved one requires assistance day and night .1,2
Research shows that the stress of caregiving can have negative consequences for the caregiver’s physical and mental health and well-being.3 Unpaid caregivers are at higher risk for health problems than non-caregivers of the same age. This may due to the direct effects of psychological distress on their physical health (e.g., extreme stress, especially combined with depression, can raise cancer, heart disease, and diabetes risk), or because that distress leads to unhealthy lifestyle changes that eventually impact their physical well-being (e.g., overeating, abusing substances, or neglecting to visit the doctor regularly).1,2
Some of the symptoms of caregiver stress include:1
- Feelings of frustration.
- Perceived helplessness.
- Making mistakes, such as giving the wrong medication.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Feeling isolated and lonely.
- Problems sleeping or sleeping too much.
- Weight changes.
- Feeling tired much of the time.
- Loss of interest in hobbies.
- Quick to anger or irritation.
- Often worries or sad.
- Increased body aches or headaches.
- Increased unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking alcohol.
Mental health issues, including PTSD and substance abuse in veterans, can increase stress levels for caregivers.3 Veterans’ substance abuse can impact a caregiver in a number of ways; caregivers may feel they need to cover for the person or pretend that nothing is wrong, which only serves to increase stress.4
Mental disorders and substance abuse issues are extremely complicated and require professional treatment that goes beyond what a traditional caregiver is equipped to handle. 4
VA Caregiver Support Programs
As a caregiver, you may feel that you should be able to handle everything on your own. However, you should know that there are resources to help you. For example, you may be eligible to receive caregiver services with the VA’s rehab. The VA offers a wide range of services for caregivers under two different programs. 5 (2nd paragraph)
The Program of General Caregiver Support Services is available for any individual who provides personal care services to an enrolled veteran who served during any era. This program offers resources, support, and education to eligible caregivers. You do not need to live with the veteran or be a relative to qualify for this program. You can find out if you qualify by contacting your local Caregiver Support Coordinator or by calling the Caregiver Support Line. The Caregiver Support Coordinators can be found on this website, or you can call the VA Caregiver Support Line toll free at 1-855-260-3274 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST. 5
The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, which is available to those who provide care for seriously injured veterans who served on or after 9/11. You can check your eligibility for this program with your Caregiver Support Coordinator, or perform an online eligibility verification. Caregivers who qualify will receive all the benefits of the program above, as well as:5, 6
- A financial stipend each month.
- Health insurance (if eligible).
- Mental health services and counseling.
- Caregiver training.
- Respite care.
- Help with money, travel, and lodging when you and veteran travel for needed care.
All caregivers are also eligible for the VA’s peer support mentoring program, in which caregivers can share their experiences and provide mutual support. This program offers a way for caregivers to network and connect with others who have had similar experiences. Caregivers are matched together and interact through email, phone, or face-to-face contact. Read more about the program or contact your Caregiver Support Coordinator.
Are You a Caregiver?
People who provide regular care for a veteran may not actually identify themselves as “caregivers” and may not realize they are eligible for support services. A caregiver is someone who provides assistance that may include:5
- Making medical appointments or driving the veteran to the doctor or VA rehab facility.
- Picking up prescriptions.
- Helping the veteran with tasks such as getting dressed or taking a shower.
- Assisting with medication administration or injections.
- Helping the veteran get in and out of bed.
- Helping the veteran complete physical therapy.
- Helping the veteran with feeding.
- Talking to doctors, social workers, and other professionals to help the veteran understand their care and/or benefits.
When to Consider Professional Help
As a caregiver, it’s natural to feel responsible for your loved one, but you cannot and should not have to manage everything on your own. Keep in mind that certain issues, such as depression and drug use, can be common in veterans, and there’s a reason why VA programs exist to address these issues. Some things that you cannot manage alone include:
- Mental health disorders like PTSD or depression.
- Suicidal behaviors and thoughts.
- Substance use disorders.
If your loved one is struggling with any of the above, you can obtain help through various avenues. VA substance abuse programs are available to help your loved one with addiction and related mental health problems, such as PTSD or depression. You can learn more about VA mental health services on the VA’s website.
If you or your loved is in crisis, you can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text to 838255, or chat online.
Desert Hope Treatment Center is another option for a veteran who suffers from addiction and other mental health issues, such as depression. The center’s unique veterans program offers care specific to the veteran’s needs. Veterans enrolled with the VA who qualify for community care may be able to attend Desert Hope at the same rate they would pay to attend a VA facility.
Desert Hope’s veterans’ program includes:
- Proven addiction therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Trauma-based therapies.
- Anger management.
- Introduction to 12-Step programs and community-based support group meetings.
- Education on communication skills.
- Individual therapy and group treatment.
- Family and couples counseling.
- Life skills training.
- Conflict resolution training.
- Coping skills education.
Make Yourself a Priority
If you don’t take care of yourself first, it’s going to be that much harder to care for someone else. Some tips to take care of yourself include:7
- Asking for help. If possible, consider recruiting others who may be able to share some of your burden.
- Joining a support group. You might join a group offered by the VA’s caregiver support programs or start a group if you know others who may be interested. 12-Step groups for loved ones of addiction individuals (e.g., Al-Anon or Nar-Anon) can be immensely helpful as well.
- Improving your relationship with the person you care for. Talk things out and, if necessary, consider seeking counseling (either for yourself or for the two of you).
- Avoiding isolation. Get out of the house, whether it’s alone or with friends, to exercise, do hobbies, or just get fresh air.
- Seeking respite care. This entails money to obtain additional care for the veteran when you need a break.
- Organizing your finances. Keeping things in order can help you avoid the stress of unnecessary surprises and expenditures.
- Practicing self-compassion. Be nice to yourself and give yourself credit for the hard work you perform as a caregiver.
- Performing relaxation techniques, even if that means just taking a few minutes for yourself to breathe deeply.
- Engaging in a mind-body practice like yoga, meditation, or Tai Chi. These can reduce stress and help you relax.
In addition to the VA, other organizations provide a variety of services for caregivers of veterans. These include:
- Caregivers on the Homefront. This provides a variety of services for caregivers, such as training on topics like finances, legal planning, and suicide prevention. It also offers online and in-person support, as well as advocacy for caregivers.
- Hearts of Valor. This seeks to support caregivers through an online community that provides social connections to other caregivers in similar situations. It offers support groups by geographic area and sponsors annual retreats to provide education on caregiving issues.
- Operation Family Caregiver. This organization coaches the families of returning service members and veterans to manage the difficulties they face when they come home. Services are available nationwide in English and Spanish.
- Hope for the Warriors. This offers a scholarship program to provide financial aid for continued education at a “reputable, accredited university, college, or trade school for spouses/caregivers” of post-9/11 veterans.
- Office on Women’s Health. (2019). Caregiver Stress.
- Crosswell, A. & Epel, E. (2018). Caregiver Stress: Stress Measurement Network.
- Penning, M. & Wu, Z. (2016). Caregiver Stress and Mental Health: Impact of Caregiving Relationship and Gender. The Gerontologist, 56(6), 1102-1113.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. National Caregiver Training Program: Module 5: Managing Challenging Behaviors.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). VA Caregiver Support: Support for Caregivers.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
- Craig Hospital. (2015). Long Term Caregivers: For Better and for Worse.
- Wei, M. (2018). Self-care for the caregiver.