Total Force Fitness and holistic health strategies for Military caregivers

When life changes for a Military Service Member recovering from an injury or illness, it changes for their family as well. Often, loved ones and friends take on the role of caregivers. They offer significant support throughout the recovery process and beyond. However, caregiving can be stressful. You run the risk of burnout when you focus solely on others without time to recharge. It’s important to take time for yourself too.

Family challenges for military caregivers

More Military Service Members are coming home from combat, and with advances in technology, equipment, and medical care, the survival rates are rising. In addition, the rates of coming home injured or wounded are rising too. Most wounded Military Service Members come home with multiple traumas and injuries—both visible and invisible—so it becomes a difficult task to manage recovery.

Families often play a significant role in care and recovery. Whether it’s through physical support, emotional support, or help with day-to-day activities, family caregivers take on a lot. They commonly become “informal” caregivers without the pay or benefits of a healthcare professional. Over 5 million people in the United States serve as informal Military caregivers.

Social and family support and connections are linked with faster healing and better outcomes after injury. However, there is also a cost to family members who take on the role of caregiver. Because Military Service Members tend to be relatively young, caregiver responsibilities can last close to a lifetime. Caring for an injured military family member is much different from caring for a child (or even an aging parent) because of the length of time care is needed. It’s important to plan a course of action so you and your family can build resilience and optimize your military wellness.

Here are some strategies for success as a military caregiver to help you come out stronger.

Use Total Force Fitness to build resilience and cope with the emotional stress of caregiving

When you take on extra care responsibilities, it’s normal to struggle with negative feelings and extra stress. Anger, resentment, and frustration are common emotions. As a caregiver, you are at greater risk of depression, grief, exhaustion, and self-neglect. You are also more likely to develop your own physical health issues. Research suggests a holistic approach to your health can increase your resilience and help address some of the emotional challenges.

Total Force Fitness strategies

  • Keep your nutrition and physical fitness in mind. Remember the flight-attendant presentation? “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others.” Likewise, as a caregiver, you need to be at your best before you help others. Eat right, get the proper amount of sleep, exercise on a regular basis, and make regular visits with your doctor to help provide you with the best possible care.
  • Reconnect with your spirituality. Whether it means connecting to a religious community—or simply thinking about your purpose and goals—caregiver resilience is linked with spirituality and meaning. Your spiritual fitness is an important aspect of your health. Consider what matters to you and how you can connect your values to the support you provide.
  • Focus on problem solving. It can be easy to mix emotional stress with tactical problems. Often, tactical problems can be solved with a little bit of brainstorming and cooperation. List the challenges you and your family face. Then come up with some strategies. Problem solving can be a big part of building resilience as a caregiver. Consider a problem-solving worksheet or other tools for solution-oriented conversations.

Financial health and informal military caregiving

While caregiving involves many interpersonal and emotional costs, there are also monetary costs to informal care. Caregivers in military families are more likely to leave their jobs to help take care of the injured or ill individual. Obviously, that loss of income can be significant for many military families. In other cases, a family member might work more to cover the cost of professional care. There is a link between financial strain and military caregiving. And because caregiving can extend for close to a lifetime, those financial pressures can last.

Strategies to optimize financial health

  • Know your resources. In recent years, there has been more recognition and awareness of the costs of military caregiving. Several programs now offer financial and caregiving support to military families.
  • Don’t let money troubles affect relationships. It can be difficult to separate financial stress from relationship conflict. Financial strain is linked to unhealthy relationships, specifically relationships of couples. But if you take the time to discuss your financial concerns, and focus on communication around money, your family can tackle financial challenges together.
  • Get into healthy financial habits. Money troubles are a huge source of stress for many military families. This is especially true for military caregivers. But simple things—for example, budgeting—can help you get on track when you are struggling financially. Small financial changes can make a big difference.

Build social support to handle the extra burdens of caregiving

Caregiving means you might not always have time for yourself or your own needs. It’s easy to lose yourself while you care for your injured Military Service Member or Veteran or take on more of the parenting, work, or other family responsibilities. Caregivers often report feeling isolated and lonely, and that means negative outcomes for everyone.

Self-care and connection strategies

  • Get support. No one can do it all. Doing everything by yourself can lead to burnout and more financial stress. The Caregiver Resource Directory (CRD) is a great resource for caregivers, as are social support groups. Visit the Military Caregiver PEER Forum Initiative, which links caregivers with other caregivers.
  • Set realistic expectations. No one is perfect. Have patience. Know that it is enough to give it your best and be satisfied with that. Focus on the things that go well, not on setbacks or failures. Learn to value flexibility and creative outcomes. Establish a mindset where you’re open to change and different ways of doing things. Value creative and adaptable solutions to everyday problems. Life is less stressful when you look for creative solutions instead of “perfect” results.
  • Learn to say "No." Over-commitment is self-defeating. Most caregivers are pulled in multiple directions: children, work, community activities, and caregiving. This is a recipe for burnout and self-neglect. Instead, stay true to your priorities and say “No” to the rest. Practice your assertive communication to express your needs firmly, but respectfully.

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References

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Dreer, L. E., Cox, M. K., McBrayer, A., Neumeier, W. H., Herman, C., & Malone, L. A. (2019). Resilience among caregivers of injured service members: Finding the strengths in caregiving. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 100(4), S76–S84. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2018.12.027

Easom, L. R., Wang, K., Moore, R. H., Wang, H., & Bauer, L. (2018). Operation family caregiver: Problem-solving training for military caregivers in a community setting. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(4), 536–553. doi:10.1002/jclp.22536

Ramchand, R., Tanielian, T., Fisher, M. P., Vaughan, C. A., Trail, T. E., Batka, C., . . . Ghosh-Dastidar, B. (2014). Hidden Heroes: America's Military Caregivers. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Thandi, G., Harden, L., Cole, L., Greenberg, N., & Fear, N. T. (2018). Systematic review of caregiver burden in spouses and partners providing informal care to wounded, injured or sick (WIS) military personnel. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 164(5), 365–369. doi:10.1136/jramc-2017-000821

Trail, T., Friedman, E., Rutter, C. M., & Tanielian, T. (2020). The relationship between engagement in online support groups and social isolation among military caregivers: Longitudinal questionnaire study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(4), araticle e16423. doi:10.2196/16423

Van Houtven, C. H., Friedemann-Sánchez, G., Clothier, B., Levison, D., Taylor, B. C., Jensen, A. C., . . . Griffin, J. M. (2012). Is policy well-targeted to remedy financial strain among caregivers of severely injured U.S. service members? INQUIRY: The Journal of Health Care Organization, Provision, and Financing, 49(4), 339–351. doi:10.5034/inquiryjrnl_49.04.01