Spouses, parents, family and friends who care for disabled troops or veterans soon will have a new resource to lean on for support, inspiration and confidence when they need it.

The Military and Veteran Caregiver Network is training experienced caregivers to serve as mentors for those new to the role or who think they could benefit from a relationship with a seasoned caregiver.

The idea is develop a group trained to provide insight, knowledge and skills to those who need assistance. Through the network, caregivers seeking a mentor will be electronically matched to one with a similar experience or background.

"The isolation caregivers of all eras feel is very, very real," said Lynda Davis, MCVN executive director. "It's valuable to have a place to go, a person to turn to, just to know you are not alone."
 

According to a report published by Rand Corp. in 2014, more than 22.6 million people in the U.S. care for a person who faces challenges functioning independently, including 5.5 million caring for veterans.

More than 1 million Americans are providing care and support for ill or injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, according to Rand.

Davis said more than half of caregivers are isolated with no social interaction. MCVN is designed to reduce isolation, increase connections and provide caregivers the tools they need to help their loved ones.

"We are run by and for caregivers," Davis said. "We partner with over 200 organizations and have the real ability to help."

The MVCN’s new Peer Mentor Support Program will provide eight hours of training to would-be mentors, including four hours of self-paced classes and four hours of group training.

The goal is to relieve stress and provide further support to caregivers in the network, which has 100,000 connections through a variety of social media sites and outreach, Davis said.

The program will be formally introduced in Washington D.C. during a week that includes several events dedicated to the military caregiver cause.

On Tuesday, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting military caregivers, will host a Hidden Heroes campaign summit to call attention to the needs of military and veterans caregivers. Hidden Heroes will serve to "awaken the nation to the service and sacrifice of America’s military and veteran caregivers, according to organizers.

Those scheduled to participate in the event include former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, actor Tom Hanks, honorary campaign co-chairman Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald.

McDonald is to discuss improvements in VA programs to assist those who care for veteran patients. The following day, the VA will host a day long event to strategize on the long-term challenges of caregivers.

Actor Tom Hanks is scheduled to speak in Washington next week at an event for those who care for injured veterans. (Photo by Steve Cohn/Invision for Warner Bros./AP Images)

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report on Sept. 13 calling for more support of the nation’s caregivers, particularly their own health and financial needs.

The report noted that the health care delivery system must better account for the roles of family caregivers, given that the number of family caregivers will shrink in the coming years as demand rises.

"Ignoring family caregivers leaves them unprepared for the tasks they are expected to perform, carrying significant economic and personal burdens," said Richard Schulz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Caregivers are potentially at increased risk for adverse effects in virtually every aspect of their lives — from their health and quality of life to their relationships and economic security.  If the needs of the caregivers are not addressed, we as a society are compromising the well-being of elders. Supporting family caregivers should be an integral part of the nation’s collective responsibility for caring for its older adult population."

The MCVN began as a loose network of caregivers using social platforms like Facebook. Davis said as the social network grew, organizers realized there was a need for a secure social network where members could share confidential information and get assistance from others.

Bristol-Myers Squibb provided the seed money to establish the network, which is housed by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

"We created this because there wasn't a safe formal platform to share sometimes very sensitive information," Davis said. "We have grown to more than 100,000 contacts and continue to grow."

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.