Two weeks ago, we announced the most comprehensive study of America's military caregivers to date. An estimated 5.5 million family members, friends, and acquaintances provide a range of services to current and former military servicemembers who have disabling physical or mental injuries or illnesses, saving the nation billions of dollars each year.
But caregiving can exact a toll: Compared to non-caregivers, military caregivers experience more problems at work, greater family tension, and worse health. This is especially true among caregivers of those who served after September 11th.
In our study, commissioned by Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, we made recommendations to fill gaps in current policies, programs, and other initiatives designed to support military caregivers.
We're already starting to see increased activity as policymakers begin to focus on this critical population. Last Thursday, Senator Patty Murray introduced the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, which expands eligibility for benefits, particularly for those who care for veterans and servicemembers with mental health conditions, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
One day later at the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and more than 50 military caregivers joined former Senator Elizabeth Dole, who announced a diverse coalition of organizations coming together to address the support gaps identified in our study. Introducing Hidden Heroes: The National Coalition for Military Caregivers, Dole said:
“The RAND report is a clarion call. It is up to us, those of us in this room, and to people of goodwill across our great country, to answer the call. [This coalition is] meant to inspire individuals and organizations to work together to raise awareness and support for America's military caregivers.”
It's encouraging to see this underserved population go from being largely “hidden” to the focus of discussion on the Senate floor and in the East Wing. As momentum continues to build, stakeholders across the board should keep in mind four broad recommendations for how to help military caregivers:
There are three ways to empower military caregivers:
- Providing education and training can help them help others more effectively.
- Helping caregivers acquire health care coverage and access existing services can lessen the stress and strain of their role, and mitigate some of the adverse consequences of caregiving.
- Boosting public awareness of caregivers' contributions and the potential consequences of military caregiving could garner further support for this group, and encourage even more caregivers to seek help.
Create Caregiver-Friendly Environments
Acknowledging the unique needs of military caregivers in various settings can help them balance the demands of caregiving with the rest of their responsibilities:
- Health providers should recognize caregivers as part of the health care team and provide regular interaction with nurses, case managers, and physicians.
- Employers can help by offering support services, raising awareness, and providing flexible scheduling.
Fill Gaps in Programs
Current programs concerning the needs of military caregivers typically focus on the veteran or servicemember. Offering targeted support for caregivers could help fill numerous gaps. In addition, military caregivers who are not immediate family members or who are caring for someone under the age of 60, where most post-9/11 caregivers fall, are often ineligible for existing programs. Expanding eligibility to include these groups could also fill important gaps.
Time spent caregiving is significantly correlated with adverse outcomes like depression. Expanding respite care, which directly reduces time spent caregiving, could potentially prevent adverse consequences and should therefore be made more widely available.
Plan for the Future
Planning should focus not just on the evolving needs of current military caregivers, but on the needs of future ones, as well. Parents caring for their sons and daughters or young spouses caring for a loved one need to make financial and legal plans to ensure caregiving continuity when they may no longer be able or willing to perform caregiving duties. Support services should be integrated and coordinated across organizations and sectors to enhance sustainability and avoid creating a maze for caregivers. Ensuring that services are high-quality can foster long-term caregiver health and well-being.
Finally, continued research to track the evolving need for military caregiving, as well as its long-term impact on caregivers, is critical. Our study provides a snapshot of the needs and burdens of military caregiving, which can help us make projections about the future. However, these are only projections. Rigorous, cross-sectional studies conducted years from now could provide valuable comparisons to our findings. Longitudinal studies and evaluations can help monitor needs over time and determine how well programs and services are meeting them.
The Bottom Line
Just as military caregivers provide a wide range of assistance to wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans—as well as a tremendous benefit to America as a whole—the steps we've outlined are widespread in scope and can inform the coalition's multi-pronged efforts to promote the long-term well-being of these hidden heroes.
As First Lady Michelle Obama said to military caregivers last Friday, “It's going to take all of us working together to get you to a place where you feel that you live in a country that appreciates your service—because you do.”
Rajeev Ramchand is a senior behavioral and social scientist and Terri Tanielian is a senior social research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.