I was recently reading about how caregiving for veterans is different than caring for other populations, or even from caring for veterans from other time periods. So often, when we think about the term “caregiving,” we think of elderly individuals with dementia or other disabilities that are more common in older adults.
I also did not realize how many individuals we were talking about. According to the e-magazine Caring Suggests, there are more than 48,000 veterans who have been injured in recent military conflicts, and approximately 400,000 service members who have combat-related stress, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues. Finally, another 320,000 veterans have a traumatic brain injury. That’s a lot of people needing care….but, in addition, that’s a lot of young people who will need care for years and years to come.
In some instances, the parents of these individuals are stepping forward to provide that care. That’s not surprising, but consider the physical and emotional effort that is required to take on that kind of task when you are older yourself. These caregivers are not looking at providing care for someone over the next couple of years as that person reaches the end of their lifespan. Instead, they may be facing another 40 to 50 years as a caregiver.
Another part of the problem is that many of these caregivers must remain employed, so they have the added stress of managing their jobs while caregiving after work hours. When they do reach retirement age, their caregiving job doesn’t stop. It may go on for many more years.
So, what can we do to help? First, knowledge is our best defense. We have to recognize the problem and all of us need to get behind finding the answers. We need to look at what caregivers need to provide appropriate and adequate care for our veterans. We need to ensure that there are programs and resources in place to support them, and that includes some financial support when it’s needed.
Each of us has to be part of the solution. We need to ensure our caregivers aren’t burned out while providing care. We need to be there for our service men and women who laid so much on the line for each of us and for the families that support them.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that, to an extent at least, we can focus on the negative and let ourselves be drawn into depression, or we can choose to think of things in a more positive light and not let ourselves be drawn into the dark. Of course, clinical depression isn’t the same thing; that is going to require professional treatment. But, if you find your tendency is to be unhappy on a daily basis and there is nothing in your immediate environment going wrong, then you can choose to set aside a lot of the times when you’d allow your mind to delve into negative thoughts and not let yourself be dragged down.
Choosing to focus on the positive requires courage and determination. I guess, to an extent, it probably requires some faith too. There are times now when I feel myself starting to fall back into the “cloud of doom” feeling, and I have to tell myself, “No. It’s not that bad. I’ve survived worse. I’ll survive this.” And I do survive. But I also am able to set the worry aside and enjoy life while things work themselves out. Really!
If you find yourself thinking things couldn’t get any worse, then take the time to run with that thought. What is the absolute worst scenario that could happen? How likely is it that it will occur? If it’s unlikely, then why are you allowing it to affect your life? Why give up even one minute of happiness worrying about something that isn’t likely to happen? Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to do some preplanning for things that might go wrong. It just means that once you’ve made your preparations, then you can’t do anything more anyway, so why worry?
Take joy in the small things in life. Look for the positive in everything. Live with an attitude of gratitude. You’ll find life more satisfying if you do!
I was raised in a war zone. I won’t go into detail here, but only will say that in my early 20s, I was diagnosed as having PTSD. As the years went by, I learned as much about my PTSD as possible. I guess that falls under the “know your enemy” heading. I felt I would have a better chance at controlling the fallout if I knew what was happening.
As I grew older, I began to see the ways that PTSD had shaped my personality. I was able to see how I “worked” a room full of people. I hated going to parties or events where there were lots of people; I couldn’t keep track of the dangerous ones if there were too many, and that was a function of my hypervigilance. In order to feel safe, I had to track who was in close proximity to the door so my escape wouldn’t be blocked if I needed to get away. After a great deal of time, I began to see that I was not in grave danger while at these events. No one was looking to attack me; no one cared at all about me in a negative way. I did not need to be so vigilant about danger that I would create fear where there was no danger.
Now I can attend public functions without falling apart. I’m much happier and I’m proud of the fact that I was able to challenge a belief that was keeping me prisoner and preventing me from leading a full life. It was worth the effort; it’s much nicer being here than it was being there!
When you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, you suffer from a wide variety of symptoms including anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, avoidance, and emotional numbness. There are too many symptoms to list here, but the funny thing about PTSD is that it’s not like you go through the symptoms one at a time. You’ll likely have multiple things going on at once, or you may experience them all at once. It makes sense then to be prepared for how you’ll respond, and that means having an arsenal of coping mechanisms to fall back on.
As with any other tool that you use, you need to practice your coping skills to become efficient in using them. That means using these skill even when it’s the last thing you want to do. It’s certainly easier to let the pain immobilize you, but that’s not fair to you or those around you.
I once was told that when you don’t want to do something, pretend you do. Sometimes we need to trick ourselves into “getting into the spirit” and going through the motions even when we don’t want to. As you continue to use your coping methods, even if your heart isn’t in it, one day you’ll find you’re no longer pretending. You’re really actively working on healing and moving out of that place of pain. And one day in the future, you’ll find the healing has started.
Some of the ways suggested at the Veteran Health Library by MyHealtheVet to manage your PTSD symptoms are to:
- Learn about PTSD to better understand how and why it affects you.
- Relieve stress to relax and feel less anxious.
- Exercise and be active to reduce how tense you feel. People who are fit usually have less anxiety, depression, and stress than people who aren’t active.
- Get enough sleep to help your mood and make you feel less stressed. Many people with PTSD have trouble sleeping because they feel nervous and anxious or can’t stop thinking about the traumatic event.
- Eat a balanced diet to help your body deal with tension and stress. Whole grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and protein are part of a balanced diet.
- Find things to do to ease your memories and reactions. Consider channeling your emotions into activities or sports, painting or writing, or a rewarding job.
- Identify your beliefs to keep you balanced. PTSD can cause a spiritual crisis. You may begin to question your own beliefs and values and ask yourself why war or disasters happen. If this happens to you, talk to a family member, friend, or spiritual advisor. Consider spiritual study, prayer, or meditation.
Whether you walk, read, go fishing, listen to music, get a massage, join a support group, or whatever, find as many coping mechanisms as you can. Look for those things you enjoy most as they will capture your attention and have the best chance at holding it. Then do it. If you have to, go through the motions even when you don’t want to. Invest yourself in your plan for healing…after all, you’re worth it!
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about living with PTSD is knowing that, at least to an extent, it’s robbed you of your joy in life. It can be frustrating to know you are responding to things based on your PTSD, but in a way, it may help to recognize that it’s also a survival tactic. PTSD makes us more alert to everything going on around us; that makes us able to respond more quickly to things when they go wrong. That can be a good thing.
As I’ve aged, I’ve found that although my PTSD remains, it’s easier for me to manage. Part of that is learning to recognize when I’m really in danger verses when I am simply reacting without thinking things through. If I take the time to ask myself if I’m really in trouble or if things are really as bad as I think they are, I often find the answer is “not really.”
Recognizing the reality of danger is part of growing through your PTSD. Notice that I didn’t say “growing out” of it; I don’t believe we ever really grow out of PTSD. But, I do believe we can grow within it and maybe even beyond it. I think I use it to increase my understanding life’s risks. Knowing that it flavors how I react too can be frustrating, but that’s okay. I’ve gotten comfortable with that. It no longer entirely controls me. Instead, I see it as a necessary (for me) way of surviving. And, I can live with that.
One of the problems the VA is trying to overcome is that, according to their own reports, they are experiencing a 16% error rate when assessing the disability claims of veterans. That means that servicemen and women who deserve benefits are not receiving them. The VA says this is occurring because workers are denying benefits that are deserved, as well as not rating disabilities correctly.
The high rate of errors appears to be caused because of the high volume of claims coming in at any one time, because the claims are now more complex, and because VA staff are not receiving adequate training to appropriately evaluate the claims.
The first step toward correcting the problem is identifying what’s causing it. Now let’s hope they can eliminate the errors so those who deserve benefits are receiving them.