Helping Military Family Caregivers, Part I: Recognizing Their Similarities and Differences

Family Caregiving January 31, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Military family caregivers are a special group. They’re coping with issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), amputations, and other conditions and situations specific to military personnel that most nonmilitary family caregivers don’t have to face. However, all military family caregivers are not alike. As with other family caregivers, every military family caregiver has a unique situation. As a professional, understanding how caregivers of service members/veterans are alike and how they differ is essential in providing the most effective help possible. (Note: For the purposes of this article, the term service member refers to someone still actively engaged in the military, and veteran refers to someone who has served and has been discharged or has retired from the military.)

Although little research exists on military family caregivers, this article identifies similarities and differences that have been recognized among members of this group. The information included in this article comes from government or foundation reports or from research on specific populations, such as caregivers of veterans or service members with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), cancer, or other illnesses or disabilities.

Similarities among Caregivers of Service Members/Veterans

  • Women most often serve as the primary caregivers of service members/veterans. Of those caring for service members involved in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, 79 percent are women, and nearly all caregivers of veterans (96 percent) are women (Griffin, J. M., et al., 2012; NAC and AARP, 2009; NAC, 2010).
  • Much like all caregivers, military family caregivers assume caregiving responsibilities because they feel obligated to take on the caregiving role (NAC, 2010).
  • Because a majority of veterans of all ages experience mental health issues, many caregivers of veterans must address such issues, making caregiving an even harder task.
  • Military family caregivers are more likely to provide care for longer periods of time than other caregiver populations. Of caregivers caring for seriously wounded, ill, or injured soldiers, 43 percent indicate that they expect to provide care for a long time, with many expecting to provide care for the rest of their lives, possibly because the soldier was wounded at an early age and requires lifelong care (Munoz, 2009; NAC and AARP, 2009; NAC, 2010; Pinkus, E., 2011).
  • Spousal caregivers usually live with the service members/veterans for whom they are caring.
  • Among caregivers of veterans, a majority share the same household as the family member needing care.

Differences among Caregivers of Service Members/Veterans

  • Among caregivers of service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 62 percent are parents, and 84 percent are younger than 60. On the other hand, 70 percent of caregivers of veterans are spouses older than 50. 
  • Not surprisingly, differences exist among younger and older caregivers. Among parents who are caregivers, 55 percent are employed, and 31 percent are caring for children, whereas 41 percent of caregivers of veterans are employed, and 24 percent are caring for another individual, usually an adult, such as an aging parent (Griffin, J. M., et al., 2012; NAC and AARP, 2009; NAC, 2010).
  • A factor differentiating parents caring for service members is whether the parent lives with the service member. Parents typically live in households separate from their service members, unless the service member needs full-time care or is unable to live alone.
  • Caregiver experiences differ due to the particular health conditions they are addressing. According to the We Honor Veterans website’s World War II Health Risks, Korean War Health Risks, Vietnam War Health Risks, and Gulf War Health Risks pages, health conditions of service members/veterans vary widely. World War II and Korean War veterans may suffer from being exposed to prolonged cold and environmental toxins. Many Vietnam veterans were exposed to malaria, other tropical diseases, and Agent Orange. Gulf War veterans may have been exposed to chemical and biological agents as well as to toxic fumes from burning oil wells. Many veterans have been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and PTSD. Veterans and service members involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars live with amputations, burns, TBI, PTSD, and other health concerns.
  • Health conditions that caregivers of veterans deal with also differ depending on the veteran’s age. Younger veterans are more likely to experience TBI and PTSD. Older veterans may have cancer, diabetes, or Parkinson’s disease. These veterans also may experience undiagnosed, underdiagnosed, or late-onset PTSD (Manguno-Mire, G., 2007).

Approach for Meeting Individual Needs

As a professional, one of the most important things you can do is let military family caregivers know that they’re not alone. The report Military Caregivers: Cornerstones of Support for Our Nation’s Wounded, Ill, and Injured Veterans estimates that between 275,000 and 1 million Americans are caring for or have cared for a wounded, ill, or injured service member from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Letting a caregiver know that he or she is not alone will help that person realize that others are in similar situations and are coping with many of the same challenges. On the other hand, expressing your understanding that each caregiving situation is unique is important too. Exploring the similarities and differences among military family caregivers through insightful questions will help you zero in on the best way to address each family’s specific caregiving needs.

For more information about helping military family caregivers, see Helping Military Caregivers, Part II: Recognizing Their Challenges.


Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MPB Consulting, LLC


Department of Defense (DOD). Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Worldwide Numbers for Traumatic Brain Injury. Retrieved August 19, 2013. 

Griffin, J. M.; Friedemann-Sanchez, G.; Jensen, A. C.; Taylor, B. C.; Gravely, A .; Clothier, B.; Simon, A. B.; Bangerter, A.; Pickett, T.; Thors, C.; Ceperich, S.; Poole, J.; & van Ryn, M. (2012). The Invisible Side of War: Families Caring for US Service Members with Traumatic Brain Injuries and Polytrauma. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation 27(1):3-13.

Manguno-Mire, G.; Sautter, F.; Lyons, J.; Myers, L.; Perry, D.;  Glynn, S.; & Sullivan, G. (2007). “Psychological Distress and Burden among Female Partners of Combat Veterans with PTSD. Journal of Nervous Mental Disorders, Vol. 195, No.2, pp.144-151.

Munoz, K. (2009). Wounded Warrior Family Care Report: Establishing a Model of Family Support Because Getting Them Home Is Just the First Step. Woodbridge, VA: Quality of Life Foundation.

National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) (2010). Caregivers of Veterans—Serving on the Homefront. Bethesda, MD: National Alliance for Caregiving. Retrieved January 1, 2011.

National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP (2009). Caregiving in the United States. Bethesda, MD: National Alliance for Caregiving. Retrieved January 10, 2010.  

Pinkus, E. (2011). Survey of Nebraska Members on Long-Term Care and Caregiving Issues. Washington, DC: AARP.

We Honor Veterans: Hospice Professionals on a Mission to Serve. Gulf War Health Risks. Retrieved August 10, 2013.

We Honor Veterans: Hospice Professionals on a Mission to Serve. Korean War Health Risks. Retrieved August 10, 2013.

We Honor Veterans: Hospice Professionals on a Mission to Serve. Vietnam Health Risks. Retrieved August 10, 2013. 

We Honor Veterans: Hospice Professionals on a Mission to Serve. World War II Health Risks. Retrieved August 10, 2013.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.