By Christine J. Jensen, Ph.D., Master Trainer, Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving & Director, Health Services Research, Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health
In honor of Memorial Day, all across the Williamsburg and Hampton Roads region, wreathes will be laid on gravestones, and loved ones all across the nation will mourn their losses at solemn observances honoring fallen soldiers. These ceremonies respectfully honor the ultimate sacrifices made by so many of our nation's heroes.
Behind closed doors, on Memorial Day as on 364 other days of the year, many more of our nation's heroes try their best to resume a normal life. Their battle scars linger, but they are lucky to have returned from battle alive. And yet, while they understand this blessing, they still struggle each day with hardships they never imagined. Nowhere is this truer than here, in Hampton Roads, which is home to more than 200,000 veterans and nearly 100,000 active duty military personnel, according to the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.
Those who return, with injuries both physical and psychological, lean heavily on loved ones for help - sometimes young spouses, sometimes aging parents. And these caregivers, who never anticipated this role, frequently drop everything - including their own health and well-being - to take it on. With little help, they are called on to do it all, serving as nurse, valet, therapist, chef, and personal assistant while still trying to take care of their family and home.
And since 9/11, America has seen more and more caregivers taking care of younger returning service members and veterans. More than 2.5 million service members have served in the global war on terrorism, with about two-thirds deploying before their 29th birthday. About 50,000 have been seriously wounded in action, and an estimated 1 in 5 return with posttraumatic stress or major depression. Many still have their entire lives ahead of them, and a lifetime of obstacles to overcome. But they need help.
While government and community organizations offer many services for returning service members and veterans, there is a surprising lack of services provided to those who care for them. The programs that do exist for military families focus mostly on meeting today's needs - for food, shelter, work - and less on helping families lay a strong foundation so they can meet their own needs over the long term.
Throughout Hampton Roads (South Hampton Roads, the Peninsula and the greater Williamsburg region), Operation Family Caregiver (OFC) can help. Provided by the Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health in partnership with Virginia Veteran and Family Support, OFC offers free and confidential support to the families of those who have served our nation. Specially-trained "coaches" help caregivers learn how to overcome the obstacles they face and how to manage any challenges that might come along. The program was started by the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving , and it is proven to help caregivers become more satisfied with their lives, have fewer health issues, and generally become more prepared to take care of their families.
In some parts of the country, Memorial Day is known more to mark the beginning of summer than the fallen heroes it is meant to commemorate. If your family does not mourn a fallen soldier this Memorial Day, I hope you will take a moment to help our nation's military caregivers - to encourage those who could use a bit of assistance to benefit from this program. Because everyone who is lucky enough to come home from war should have the chance to live a normal life.
Learn more about Operation Family Caregiver at www.operationfamilycaregiver.org , or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 877-285-1299 to find support.
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