Family Members Caring for Veterans Sacrifice Their Own Health, Jobs

THURSDAY, Nov. 11 (HealthDay News) — Many family caregivers of U.S. veterans sacrifice their own health and jobs to care for their loved ones and experience high levels of stress.

Even so, 94 percent say they're proud of their role, says a new study.

"The care of a veteran is unique, and in many ways these caregivers are facing even greater challenges than other family caregivers," said Gail Hunt, president of CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), which released the study to coincide with Veteran's Day.

"This report serves as a reminder that we need to come together to make sure caregivers have adequate resources and support," Hunt said in an alliance news release.

A previous NAC study found that more than 10 million people in the U.S. are caring for a veteran, from those who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam up to the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly seven million of them are veterans themselves. There are more than 23 million U.S. veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Compared to caregivers nationally, those who look after veterans are twice as likely to be a caregiver for 10 years or longer (30 percent vs. 15 percent), and are twice as likely to be in a high-burden caregiving role and to consider their situation highly stressful, found the new Caregivers of Veterans — Serving on the Homefront study.

It also found that 96 percent of family caregivers of veterans are women and 70 percent provide care for a spouse or partner. Most of these women are sole providers of care. Only one-third said they have received help from paid caregivers.

A major source of caregiver stress and burden is veteran's health conditions, which often included depression and anxiety (70 percent), post-traumatic stress disorder (60 percent) and traumatic brain injury (29 percent).

About 30 percent of caregivers of veterans also care for children under age 18, which can cause problems. Of caregivers with children in the home, 69 percent said they spend less time with their children than they would like, and 57 percent said their caregiving or the veteran's condition contributed to emotional or school problems among their children or grandchildren.

Most caregivers said there's been a decline in their healthy behaviors, such as exercising (69 percent), good eating habits (56 percent), and having regular doctor and dentists appointments (58 percent). Many also reported weight gain/loss (66 percent), depression (63 percent), stress or anxiety (88 percent), and sleep deprivation (77 percent).

The study also found that 43 percent of caregivers provide more than 40 hours a week of care. Of the 68 percent who had jobs when they started caregiving, 47 percent had to stop working or take early retirement and 62 percent had to reduce their work hours.

The study was funded by United Health Foundation.

"The family caregivers who serve our country's veterans are making huge sacrifices in terms of their own health, careers and home life," Dr. Reed Tuckson, foundation board member and executive vice president and chief of medical affairs, UnitedHealth Group, said in the news release.

Despite their willingness to serve as caregivers, he said, "it is incumbent upon all of us to help them find support and solutions to preserve their own health and well being, as well as that of the veteran. It is important that relatives, friends, and neighbors seek out opportunities to provide respite and other supportive services to these caregivers."

More information

The Family Caregiver Alliance explains how caregivers can look after themselves.