A new program will provide online training and support for military caregivers, Blue Star Families has announced.

A limited pilot test of the initiative will begin at the end of this year, and it's expected to be available to caregivers everywhere after three years of development, testing and evaluation.

"Caregivers don't know they're going to become caregivers, typically," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, chief executive officer of Blue Star Families, in a film clip describing the program. "There's no time for training beforehand, and for most, no training afterwards."

The Blue Star Cares: Military Caregiver Online Interactive Program is designed to train caregivers at home, increasing its accessibility, she said. Too often, because of their remote locations or their responsibilities that make it difficult to leave home, caregivers aren't able to attend training sessions.

The program, in development now, will use computer-based simulations and care scenarios to help caregivers solve problems and address real-life challenges. Once the training is over, the caregivers will still be able to connect with others through a social support network.

The pilot will be in three locations to be determined in the second year, according to Bana Miller, spokeswoman for Blue Star Families. In the third year, officials will evaluate and plan for building it out and making it accessible to caregivers everywhere.

There are many military caregivers who don't identify as such when they're not in the hospital or if their service members have unseen injuries such as traumatic brain injuries, said Callie Barr, a Marine Corps spouse and caregiver. This can be isolating. "We need to recognize these caregivers and help them feel supported and understood. This Blue Star Families initiative is a huge step in the right direction," she said in a statement announcing the program.

United Health Foundation has donated $750,000 to fund the program. The not-for-profit foundation was established in 1999 by UnitedHealth Group, the parent company of UnitedHealthCare Military & Veterans, the Tricare West Region contractor.

Among the programs available for military and veteran caregivers is the VA Caregiver Training conducted by Easter Seals through a contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs. It covers topics such as:

  • caregiver self-care
  • home safety caregiver skills
  • veteran personal care
  • managing difficult behaviors
  • support resources

To date, it has trained more than 35,000 caregivers, said Elsa Remak, a spokeswoman for Easter Seals.  Caregiver training is offered in several different ways, including online; in a classroom, hosted at an Easter Seals affiliate or a local community center; or through a self-study workbook, Remak said. The program also offers respite care.

Easter Seals has been conducting a series of educational webinars for caregivers, supported by Newman’s Own Foundation and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The next webinar, "Caregiving and Intimacy: A Practical Approach for Caregivers and Their Veterans," is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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