An estimated 1.1 million Americans provide care for ailing or disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including parents and spouses whose cumulative efforts save taxpayers $3 billion each year, according to a RAND study released Monday.
Most of these people labor in obscurity without a support network, unaware of government assistance available to help them, untrained in best practices for providing care and at increased risk for emotional problems of their own, researchers found.
“For every hour you spend caregiving, your risk of depression increases,” says Terri Tanielian, co-author of the largest study of military caregivers.
Sixty-three percent of those caring for a post-9/11 veteran have jobs. On average, they miss about a day of work each week caring for their loved one, an annual productivity loss of $5.9 billion, researchers found. Twenty-eight percent quit work to care for their veteran; 11 percent took early retirement.
The result is that more than 60 percent say they are constantly under financial strain, twice the ratio of caregivers for veterans who served before 9/11.
Challenges ahead include middle-aged parents who face decades of looking after sons or daughters, only to require their own support system as they grow old; or young spouses who are caregivers in a strained marriage, the study found.
“We know that a lot of these spouses ... are young, and they’re in young marriages with lower relationship quality and potentially vulnerable to divorce,” Tanielian says.
She says aging parents or troubled spouses pose challenges for the future care of veterans.
“What does that suggest to society?” Tanielian says. “Do we have a need where in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years we have a cohort of veterans who have significant caregiving requirements that don’t have caregivers? Are they going to need to be institutionalized? Is society going to have to pay to hire home health workers?”
Former senator Elizabeth Dole — whose group, Caring for Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, paid for the 288-page study — says the results show “the nation has not yet come to grips with the magnitude of the challenges facing military caregivers.”
“This is a special issue that requires a national response,” Dole says. “That response needs to be collaborative across the public, private and non-profit sector, the labor community and faith-based organizations.”
RAND researchers surveyed more than 28,000 military caregivers from July 1 to Oct. 15 for the study.
They estimated that 5.5 million Americans care for veterans of all eras — helping them bathe, dress, eat, use the toilet, make medical appointments and manage finances. They also care for their children. They help those who are emotionally troubled avoid social triggers that can exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder.
Caregivers for those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have far higher rates of emotional problems, more than likely because they deal with veterans diagnosed with mental health problems, researchers suggest.
Nearly half of caregivers suffer from depression, a far higher rate than was found among either pre-9/11 military caregivers or among those who care for disabled civilians.
Only about a third of post-9/11 military caregivers who probably suffer from depression see a counselor, the report says.