Helping Veterans with PTSD During COVID-19

Q. I’m a new caregiver for my father, Ted. Since I began a few months ago, most of my caregiving has been at a distance, due to the coronavirus. Dad has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder from his time in the Vietnam War. What can I expect, as far as typical symptoms for PTSD? What can be done for veterans with PTSD during this stressful time, and what can be done to help caregivers like myself?

A. It’s Memorial Day on Monday. As our nation’s veterans served our country with honor, we commend you and other caregivers who are rising to the challenge to help them.

As you know, feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness and doubt are normal for many of us during a pandemic. But for those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as your father, stronger stress reactions than normal are typical. For veterans with PTSD, the coronavirus pandemic has caused an increase in stress and anxiety for many, because of fear of catching the virus, uncertainty about what could happen and how long things will last, and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

PTSD Symptoms Your Loved One May Be Experiencing

Many of us with loved ones who are veterans understand how PTSD could happen. A traumatic event could have happened to your loved one, or it could be something they saw happen to someone else. For many veterans, their PTSD stemmed from their experiences in combat.

Each person with PTSD experiences symptoms in their own way. These are some things your father could be experiencing.:

1. Reliving the event

You may notice that your loved one has nightmares, gets upset by things that remind them of the event, or often seems distracted or absent.

This can happen because people with PTSD often have memories of the trauma even when they don’t want to. They may have flashbacks — memories that are so real and scary that it feels like the trauma is happening all over again.

2. Avoiding things that remind them of the event

You may notice that your loved one goes out of their way to avoid these reminders, or triggers — for example, someone who was in a car accident may avoid driving. They may also try to stay busy all the time so they don’t have to think about the event.

3. Having more negative thoughts and feelings than before

You may notice that your loved one seems sad, scared, or angry, and has trouble
relating to family and friends. They may also feel numb, or lose interest in things they used to enjoy.

4. Feeling on edge

You may notice that your loved one startles easily, has trouble sleeping, or seems
angry or irritable. They may be overprotective of their family, or always “on guard”
— like they are worried that something bad will happen.

Treatment can help — your loved one doesn’t have to live with their symptoms forever. As his caregiver, there are also strategies that you can use to help him cope with his PTSD symptoms now and in the future, as I will describe.

Caring for a Loved One with PTSD

The impact of PTSD can reach far beyond the individual with PTSD, affecting the lives of friends and caregivers. The symptoms of PTSD, as described above, can be difficult to deal with, making it important to develop healthy coping skills to manage your loved one’s PTSD symptoms. Coping strategies you can work on incorporating into your life and the life of your father can include being able to identify and cope with PTSD triggers, managing flashbacks and dissociation, and finding healthy ways to manage emotions. Please read today’s Critter Corner article for more helpful resources to cope with PTSD during the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be challenges along the way when it comes to caregiving for your father with PTSD, especially during this uncertain time. So, while you are helping your loved one cope, even if it’s from a distance, there are steps you can take to help you manage your mental health and well-being. These are strategies that can help with the stress, grief, and anxiety that many caregivers for veterans are feeling at this time:

Stay Connected

  • Seek support from family, friends, mentors, clergy, and those who are in similar circumstances.
  • Be flexible and creative in using phone, email, text messaging and video calls.

Cultivate Ways to be More Calm

  • Realize that it is understandable to feel anxious and worried about what may happen.
  • If you find that you are getting more stressed by watching the news, reduce your exposure, particularly prior to sleep.
  • Practice slow, steady breathing and muscle relaxation, as well as any other actions that are calming for you (yoga, exercise, music, meditation).
  • Try using the PTSD Coach mobile app, or PTSD Coach online for more stress reduction tools.

Improve Your Sense of Control and Ability to Endure

  • Accept situations that cannot be changed and focus on what you can alter.
  • Modify your definition of a “good day” to meet the current reality of the situation.
  • Problem-solve and set achievable goals within the new circumstances in your life.

Remain Hopeful

  • Consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.
  • Celebrate successes, find things to be grateful about, and take satisfaction in completing tasks, even small ones.
  • Give yourself small breaks from the stress of the situation by doing something you enjoy.
  • Draw upon your spirituality, those who inspire you, or your personal beliefs and values.

Here’s some advice from those who have been in similar situations:

  • Recognize, acknowledge, and accept the reality of the situation.
  • Prepare to feel overwhelmed or overly distressed. Preparation can make you feel more in control if these feelings arise and help you move through them quickly.
  • If you are having a hard time making decisions, talk to a trusted family member or friend.
  • Be aware that there are also behaviors that DON’T help. Learn more about these negative coping methods that you should avoid.
  • Talk to your health care provider if your stress seems overwhelming.

Caregiver Mentors Can Help Caregivers of Veterans Deal with PTSD

For those who are new to the role of caregiver or even those who have years of experience, chances are you can benefit from the experience, skill, and wisdom of other caregivers. The VA Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program provides an opportunity for caregivers to receive guidance and to share their experiences, wisdom, skills and passion.

In the VA Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program, remote members communicate through email or phone. The group members provide each other with a shoulder to lean on, discussing day-to-day experiences and their individual journeys as caregivers. The group talks about the highs, the lows, the challenges and the frustrations of caring for loved ones with PTSD. Sometimes they even discuss personal goals, projects and crafts.

Many VA caregivers are looking to mentor a peer or provide peer-to-peer support to someone in need. The program is open to caregivers for Veterans of all eras. Veterans can serve as a mentor or a mentee. The initial program commitment is six months, but shorter periods may be possible.

The Caregiver Support Line offers monthly telephone education groups where caregivers can discuss self-care tips and ask questions on a variety of topics. For more details, listen to a recording or view this educational handout.

Immediate Help for PTSD

Hopefully the resources described above will help in caregiving for your father. If you or a loved one needs immediate assistance with PTSD, you can contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

Plan Ahead for the Veteran in Your Life

Applying for veteran’s benefits can be confusing and arduous. Here at the Farr Law Firm, we work with veterans, such as your father, and their spouses to evaluate whether they qualify or may in the future qualify for the Veterans Aid and Attendance Benefit and/or Medicaid, and we deal with all the paperwork. As a Certified Elder Law Attorney and an Accredited Attorney with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, I understand both the Veterans Aid and Attendance Benefit and the Medicaid program and the interaction between both entitlement programs — and this interaction between the programs is of crucial importance because most veterans who start off needing Aid and Attendance will eventually need Medicaid, so all asset protection planning that is done to make a veteran eligible for Aid and Attendance must take future Medicaid benefits into account. Please call us at any time to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation. For those who feel safer in their homes, we offer phone appointments or video conference appointments in lieu of in-person meetings (but we are still open for in-person meetings, of course using social distancing, safe sanitation, and face masks):

Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Attorney Washington, D.C.: 202-587-2797

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