The Crisis of COVID-19 for Military Caregivers

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Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole delivers remarks during the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s 2015 Hidden Heroes Coalition Summit: Progress and Promise at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) -- Military.com

Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole is founder and chair of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. Linda Hope is chair and CEO of the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation.

Mary Hahn Ward, a veteran caregiver, recently shared her story about life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary cares for her husband Tom, a Marine Corps veteran who suffers from service-connected Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Mary revealed one of her greatest concerns: "What happens to my husband if I or my daughter Kate contract the virus and need to be quarantined?" Tom relies on Mary and Kate for his most basic activities of daily living, and their worries are real and alarming.

Even before this pandemic, most of America's 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers -- the spouses, mothers, dads and other loved ones caring for our wounded warriors at home -- lacked a meaningful support network. They are homebound by their around-the-clock caregiving responsibilities and rarely have backup support to care for their loved one. Feelings of extreme loneliness contribute to elevated rates of anxiety, depression and physical ailments. Their limited ability to leave the house also interferes with employment, complicates seemingly simple tasks like buying groceries and medications, and strains their social relationships.

This is the life of these hidden heroes in the best of times. Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic has struck our country hard and turned their already chaotic worlds upside down.

During this crisis, the limited in-person assistance that some caregivers depend upon is gone. Supplementing that support with paid health care professionals comes at a significant financial cost, not to mention the terrifying risk of bringing the virus into the home. As a result, performing at-home medical procedures, moving immobile veterans to avoid bed sores, managing IV lines, and coaching loved ones through episodes of post-traumatic stress are left to the caregivers -- untrained, unpaid family members and friends.

Caring for someone has never been this hard, and it has never been this important. Even as states begin the first phases of reopening, the vulnerable health of many veterans will force their caregivers to continue to follow strict social distancing guidelines. That is why it is still vital that every American take action to help our hidden heroes pull through. This pandemic will be affecting their lives for months to come.

One of the simplest, yet most important ways to help is to keep in touch with caregivers. In an Elizabeth Dole Foundation COVID-19 survey, caregivers reported that social support and a sense of community were among their greatest concerns during the pandemic.

We cannot let our caregivers lose their sense of connection. If you know a caregiver, please find time each day to reach out -- text, call, or email. Drop off a home cooked meal or groceries. Deliver a small gift that lets them know that you are thinking about them. When you reach out, ask how they are doing and what they need. Caregivers are often asked about their veteran's health, but rarely about their own.

Every American can also help protect caregivers and their veterans by following the social distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities. Many veterans have compromised immune systems and elevated chances of contracting infections due to amputations, wounds and service-connected illnesses. Factors like Agent Orange and burn pits have left veterans with weakened respiratory systems. As of today, nearly 17,500 patients in the VA health system have been positively diagnosed with COVID-19, and the number continues to rise. Caregivers are the last line of defense between the virus and our nation's veterans. We all have a responsibility to keep this vital community safe, well and strong.

Perhaps one of the quickest ways to support caregivers at this time is to share the Elizabeth Dole Foundation's COVID-19 response website, which provides free information, resources and support to caregivers. The foundation also continues to team with generous partners, like the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation, to fund work that directly responds to the most urgent needs of caregivers. As Bob Hope demonstrated for nearly 70 years, Americans should always do what is necessary, no matter the cost, to stay connected to those who serve our nation and assure them that we are in this together.

Military and veteran caregivers are among the brave heroes putting themselves in harm's way on behalf of others during this pandemic. They should not have to face this risk alone. We invite all Americans to join us in recognizing and supporting those who stand between this pandemic and the men and women who sacrificed so much for our nation.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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