The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 24, 2013

Caregiver spouses of veterans get needed attention, support


By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— "He’s going to yell, he’s going to throw a fit and then he’s going to be OK. But people don’t know that. I have had to pull them to the side (in public places) and say (during outbursts) ‘Sorry, it’s his PTSD.”

She is Charity Ritchie, the face of a new kind of war widow,, surprisingly young and bearing a tremendous load of caring for a spouse who is still alive, but requires constant care and attention. From her benevolent birthname indeed comes a level of compassion few are able to understand. Yet, at the personal expense of constant emotional debits follows an incomprehensible emptiness, as this wife of a post-September 11, 2001 veteran expresses in complete candor.

“I couldn’t breathe without him tearing me down. I don’t believe in divorce. I married him for better or worse… but I had a stash of money and I was ready to go.”

Charity, from Summers County, had been married to husband Douglas for about six years when the active duty Air Force Master Sergeant with 21 years of military

experience witnessed a crash at an airshow that threw the family into a tailspin of its own. The visual caused a retroactive response to his internalization of a previous and gruesome airshow crash he’d experienced while stationed in Germany. “That was when life as I knew it ended. We never got him back.”

Doug’s response triggered a cascade of troubling symptoms leading to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder that now, ten years later, defines his daily life and shades the lives of his family. Although she finds herself feeling abandoned, his wife is not alone in her situation.

According to Veterans Affairs data, 17 percent of all caregivers in America are caring for veterans, 70 percent are women caring for their spouse or partner and 41 percent of the care is now going to veterans 18 to 54 years old. Charity is taking part in a program started in 2011 as a Veterans Affairs initiative to support those young women and men like her who, married to or otherwise caring for a post-9/11 veteran, need a system of support.

“My 14-year-old son is the babysitter for my husband when I have to go out. I have to tell him, ‘If daddy cooks, make sure the stove’s off,” Charity reveals. They, the two women talking openly today and as VA Caregiver Support participants, describe one of the many side effects of serious PTSD, short-term memory loss, as being dangerously scatterbrained. Just one reason among many — depression, withdrawal, sudden and unexpected outbursts of anger and extreme paranoia — rendering their pledged life partners completely dependent upon them.

Laura Schafer of Mercer County needed someone to listen. Only 27, she married her husband of nine years, Donald, after the two met while he was recuperating from being shot in the back and arm three times by a sniper while serving in Iraq. At the time, he showed no signs of the PTSD to come.

Laura can count the number of friends she has who are fully sympathetic to Don’s often troubled personality on one hand, with a finger to spare. Her unfettered honesty about her situation is part and parcel of being completely burned out.

“(PTSD sufferers) are like toddlers, teenagers and grumpy old men all in one,” Laura admits candidly. Her emotional fuel gauge was on empty too many miles ago to count. Yet, she says keeps on going because she feels “… obligated. But this (program) makes it easier.”

The Caregiver Support Program is providing the full-time mom, full-time social work student and full-time caregiver a monthly stipend to defray the expenses of daily living.  Many caregivers are in financial jeopardy, being unable to work while caring for their disabled spouses. More importantly, Laura expresses, she now knows she’s not in this alone.     “I did this for me. It has been about Don for ages. I don’t feel so bad dropping him off now and going to yoga and putting off what he needs for a while. I realized, ‘Hey, we’re both gonna snap soon if something doesn’t change.”

Janie Flanagan, Caregiver Support coordinator with the Beckley VA Hospital says the Caregiver Support Program is trying to head off the frustration spouses and caregivers experience before it reaches the breaking point.  “We’re reaching out for others who meet eligibility criteria for the program. Often times, they don’t seek help for themselves.”

Flanagan attributes much of the positive transformation in the aided caregivers she sees coming from access to mental health services and one-on-one counseling, as well as the stress release from the monthly Caregiver Support group meeting. Also included within the comprehensive program are initial and dynamic assessments of each family’s situation, regular follow-up and employment of resources like both marital and individual caregiver counseling, as well as access to respite care. In addition to local human connections, a 24/7 Caregiver Support hotline exists for the benefit of participants.

“This program started because the President and Congress felt the caregivers of returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan had no clue how to provide care for loved ones with conditions like major PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” explains Flanagan. Program participants also have access to extensive training on how to be a better caregiver, available to them online as part of a Stanford University Workshop intended to teach them how to take better care of themselves. Eligibility criteria for the Caregiver Support Program includes being a post-9/11 veteran who suffered serious injury leading to the need for personal care and who received honorable discharge from military service.

“This is the new face of caregiving,” contends Flanagan, who today assisted a 19-year-old mother of a newborn baby who is also sole caregiver to a post-9/11 veteran with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) precipitated by traumatic brain injury sustained in battle. “There’s nothing wrong with asking or saying or speaking up — it’s like a load off your shoulders when you find out that you are not the only one.”

Before the program, Charity says she felt abandoned. “I felt no one in the system cared about me. He would come in and pretty much just shove us out of the way.  We didn’t exist anymore.” Since her one-on-one counseling as part of the program, not only can Charity see a difference in how she responds to her husband, but her children can as well. “My 11-year-old said ‘It’s helped you so much, Mom.’” Charity admits it is hard for people to simply look at her husband and to understand the family’s situation. “They think, ‘he can walk. He can talk. Why can’t he take care of himself?’” For Charity, Laura and those like them, the program provides necessary resources and an instant group of peers who do understand, enough to see them through the difficult days.

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