WASHINGTON — Veterans advocates believe they have made impressive strides in recent years in raising awareness about the struggles of military caregivers. Now they’re shifting their focus to ways to fix them.

On Monday, officials from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Department of Veterans Affairs hosted their second annual Military Caregivers summit, announcing a series of new plans to better connect those families with support services.

That includes a new VA center of excellence for research on caregivers, development of a new care curriculum for doctors to more fully include caregivers, and building a “caregiver map” for community leaders and families in need of practical plans for outreach.

“One of the issues has been that they feel so alone,” said Dole, a former North Carolina senator and a caregiver to her WWII veteran husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. “They don’t even realize often there are others out there who are experiencing the same things that they are.

“So helping them connect with other caregivers, where they can communicate in a safe space and share communication and cry on each others shoulders, is so important.”

Monday’s event, which brought about 300 community activists together, was designed to be a group editing session for the caregiver map project, work that the Dole Foundation expects to finish in mid-2018.

The document will include a range of caregiver archetypes, to combat the stereotype of veteran caregivers as young women with war-injured husbands. Estimates put the number of military and veterans caregivers at more than 5.5 million Americans, including parents, children, and friends of ailing individuals.

While that work progresses, foundation officials will also partner with VA staffers on launching the new Campaign for Inclusive Care, which will include retraining thousands of department physicians to “better support caregivers throughout their journey.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin called the effort a key step ahead for the department, ensuring that families are more involved in the care of their loved ones. Dole said she hopes the final product also provides a blueprint for private-sector physicians to better treat their patients. The effort will be funded through a $1 million grant from USAA.

Shulkin also announced at the event that VA will establish a new caregivers research center for excellence. That idea had been a major lobbying point for caregiver advocates, to both highlight the population and provide more information on its demographics.

“This is going to provide meaningful change among caregivers,” Dole said. “It’ll be a research blueprint and drive how we react to what is needed to help them.”

Department officials also expect to release new caregiver proposals in coming weeks, part of a review into existing programs begun earlier this year in response to complaints about VA’s inconsistent policies on the issue.

Those plans could include changes to the VA caregiver stipend program, which under law is currently only available to families of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars era. Shulkin has repeatedly said he sees flaws in that approach, given the aging veteran population and the large number of caregivers from earlier eras.

Dole said she welcomes all the help.

“Military and veteran caregiving has garnered national attention over the last few years, and that’s great,” she said. “But there is still so much we don’t know about these hidden heroes.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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