When a loved one serves in our military, it is a family affair. Service often means extended periods of time away from family for training, assignments and deployments. That time away takes a toll on both service members and those who love them. And, when the unimaginable happens – an injury or traumatic event encountered in the line of duty – recovery often means that family members take on a brand new title and role – that of caregiver.
There are an estimated 5.5 million military and veteran caregivers in the United States. In addition to their caregiving responsibilities, many military family members experience stressors unique to living a military lifestyle – geographic separation from friends and loved ones, frequent transitions and moves, shifting job responsibilities, and navigating the military and veterans’ health care systems.
Becoming a caregiver is often something that happens as a matter of circumstance rather than choice. When this happens, family members – many of whom have not had any formal caregiving experience – are quickly and often unexpectedly thrust into a new and often difficult role as the primary support system for their loved ones as they travel their paths of recovery.
Without appropriate support, the role of a caregiver can feel overwhelming. The 2017 Blue Star Families annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey revealed half of those who identified as an active-duty military caregiver reported feeling isolated and that providing care was stressful. Research shows post-9/11 military and veteran caregivers are also more likely to fare worse in health outcomes as a result of not being connected to a support network.
To help address these and other concerns, Blue Star Families and UnitedHealth Group convened leading health policy and military and veterans service organizations, as well as military caregivers, to identify opportunities to leverage technology, tools and programs to train and support military caregivers and discuss effective ways for government, nonprofits and the private sector to work together to improve the caregiver experience.
A core recommendation from participants was to explore the broader use of technology to help connect military and veteran caregivers with tools and resources while building new bridges for support and community. One promising solution identified at the convening is the Blue Star Families Military Caregiver Online Interactive Program, a virtual training program using avatar technology. The United Health Foundation and Blue Star Families collaborated to develop the program, which is designed to help military caregivers navigate challenging situations they may find in their caregiver role. The goal of the program is to increase the caregiver’s knowledge, skills and confidence in caring for their wounded, ill or injured service member or veteran, by making resources and help more readily available and accessible.
This first-of-its-kind avatar-based technology is making a difference for military caregivers. It is designed to provide constant and immediate feedback in a controlled environment, which triggers critical thinking and learning. The training avatar enables caregivers to experience navigating a difficult conversation in real time. Throughout the discussion, caregivers are given an opportunity to engage with a virtual coach, which provides immediate, constructive feedback.
This type of technology has the ability to reach caregivers worldwide as it may be accessed virtually in the comfort of the caregiver’s home. Caregivers in remote areas, including National Guard, reservist, and veteran families who have relocated to remote locations, will be able to obtain evidence‐based training and practice with the use of this advanced technology.
Carmen, a military caregiver who attended the convening, said: “The training eases the feeling of isolation and helps me build the confidence to confront and manage new situations. It helps me interact with my husband, a wounded warrior, in ways I might not have considered.” For Alison, another caregiver, attending in-person avatar training gave her a sense of community, and the confidence to have sensitive conversations with her husband about his injuries.
Blue Star Families and the United Health Foundation believe technology can help all caregivers – both military and civilian.
Increasing caregiver access to the support, tools and resources they need – not just to manage caregiving responsibilities, but to thrive in the role of caregiver – continues to be a core focus of government, and nonprofit and private-sector organizations.
Blue Star Families and UnitedHealth Group remain committed to improving the lives of our military and veteran caregivers through innovative technology solutions that help keep caregivers connected.
They deserve no less.