Caring for her husband, Robert, who was injured while serving in Iraq, has been a full-time job for Raina Thomas.
Last week, the Columbia woman came to Augusta to take part in a two-day training at the East Georgia Easter Seals office.
“There is a terrible isolation. You stay in a state of isolation being a caregiver,” said Thomas, who is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program, which has a new component in conjunction with Easter Seals targeted at caregivers of service members injured in the line of duty after Sept. 11, 2001. Many of these veterans are dealing not only with physical injuries but also from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.
About 15 caregivers from across Georgia and South Carolina took part in the June 6-7 training, which focused on them and their needs, not just the needs of the veterans they care for.
Just being able to connect with other women in similar circumstances was huge for Thomas, she said. The spouses were able to discuss issues among themselves and bonded in a way that only women in similar situations could.
“Nobody is aware of what I go through,” said Amanda Flener, of Fitzgerald, Ga., who has cared for her husband, John, for several years. He was wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Bradley assault vehicle in Iraq in 2005. In additional to physical injuries, he has severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
She has been unable to work because of the severity of his injuries.
The portion of the program targeting post-9/11 veterans has several components. Patients must be referred to the program by their VA primary care physician. There is an application and approval process, including a home visit. Once caregivers are enrolled, they receive several benefits, including health insurance, a tax-free monthly stipend and training through Easter Seals.
“It’s not enough to retire on, but it takes the ouch out,” said Thomas, who also is thankful to have health insurance.
This was the second face-to-face training held with Easter Seals. There is an online training as well, according to Jed Johnson, who is the Easter Seals’ director of the National Veterans Caregiver Training Program. The on-site training covered issues such as caregiver self-care, home safety, providing personal care to veterans, locating community resources, practical care-giving skills and managing challenging care-giving situations.
Cheryle Safford, caregiver support coordinator at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, said the first area training was held in July but Safford was not part of it. November is National Caregiver Month, and several events were held for caregivers. She invited participants in the first training to attend these events.
“One of the things I asked them about was the caregiver training. The ladies who attended the first one went on and on and on and on about how the stress level in their lives went down because of the education they’d received at the training,” she said.
The post-9/11 portion was signed into law in 2010 and officially began in May 2011. Word is getting out about the program, so it’s expanding rapidly, Safford said. Currently, 57 families are enrolled through the Charlie Norwood VA, but she expects the numbers to rise. She also said she anticipates the need for the training to rise.
“I could foresee doing the training at Easter Seals two to three times a year,” she said. “There’s so much more you can learn when people share ideas face to face.”
Thomas said she is thankful to have the caregiver program.
“I can’t imagine what life would look like without this project,” she said.