By Senator Elizabeth Dole
Earlier this week, I had the thrill of a lifetime. I became a member of a very exclusive and sought-after club – I helped throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. I was joined by my good friend, proud Bostonian, and Dole Caregiver Fellow Jason Courneen. We were together to do more than show off our unhittable fastball to the thousands in attendance on Tuesday. We were on a mission to raise awareness for Boston’s military caregivers, a community of 5.5 million parents, spouses, friends, and others who provide $14 billion a year in uncompensated care, according to a RAND study. Along with Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III and Mayor Marty Walsh, we were at the VA Boston Healthcare System in West Roxbury earlier that day to highlight, celebrate, and better understand the sacrifices of this new generation of heroes.
The care that military and veteran caregivers provide takes many forms, from administering medications, arranging for rehabilitation, and scheduling doctor’s appointments to assisting their loved ones with daily tasks like personal hygiene, dressing, and physical therapy. They step up to the plate every day, fouling off curveballs ranging from the family’s financial matters and legal challenges while raising their children. It is unpredictable and stressful work, which can take a toll on a caregiver’s physical and mental health and often presents workplace challenges as well.
For too long, military caregivers have gone unnoticed, their enormous contributions unrecognized and their unique challenges unaddressed. Yet what we know from our research is that a well-supported caregiver is the single most important factor in a veteran’s recovery. With 400,000 veterans living in the state of Massachusetts, it’s likely that you know a military caregiver or you are one yourself.
How can we better raise awareness and support those who care for our wounded, ill, and injured veterans at home? I returned to this city I called home in college and as a young teacher to help answer that question and announce that Boston joins the 113 other communities across America as part of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Hidden Heroes Cities effort to create real, lasting change at the local level. It is only fitting, given Boston was the birthplace of George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolution, is home to “Old Ironsides,” and has hometown heroes like U.S. Navy and Marine Corps veteran Ted Williams who left baseball to serve his country as an aviator in World War II and Korea.
The focus of the Hidden Heroes Cities program is to identify local military and veteran caregivers in the community and encourage them to step out of the shadows. Our goal is to raise awareness in the community of the unique challenges caregivers face and increase the number of local support services available to them.
One important component of supporting caregivers is understanding more deeply how they move through their day-to-day lives, the unique challenges they face at specific parts of their journeys, and how service organizations on the national, state, and local levels can be better prepared and equipped to support them.
That’s why I’m so excited that Philips is helping us create a “Caregiver Journey Map” to enable us to better match the needs of caregivers to available resources. The map, which will be online later this year, is based on input from families and experts, and outlines the scenarios military caregivers face repeatedly. These include:
- Preparing to be a caregiver. How to mentally, physically, and financially prepare for caregiving, so caregivers don’t underestimate the job and become overwhelmed. It happens all the time to caregivers who may be unaware of the resources available to them.
- Understanding a doctor’s diagnosis. Recent studies reveal that more than 17 percent of post 9-11 veterans have suffered mild to severe traumatic brain injury, causing a slew of symptoms not easily married to corresponding treatment regimens. Is it post-traumatic stress, a mental health condition, early onset Alzheimer’s? These issues often look the same, and caregivers need to know how to navigate these diagnoses.
- Plugging into a network. For service organizations eager to extend assistance to military caregivers, it is difficult to offer support and still know there are some who remain unaware of available services. However, social media is helping to bridge that gap. Through the use of digital tools, we are working to connect organizations to those caregivers who need support. The Caregiver Journey Map will be our blueprint for engagement.
Boston’s military caregivers need our support now more than ever and, in many ways, we’ve been striking out as a nation in providing it. The Hidden Heroes campaign is built to raise awareness, and the caregiver journey map is a blueprint for action. It is a team effort, needing the help of the entire community to ensure military and veteran caregivers are set up for long-term success, because when a caregiver is supported, the veteran is supported. As a nation, we have a sacred duty to support those who have borne the battle, in the field and on the home front. Here in Boston, as in the rest of the nation, we must answer that call.
If you want to join the Hidden Heroes program, or get more information about military caregiving, visit www.hiddenheroes.org.
Senator Elizabeth Dole is a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Law School.