Saturday, March 9, 2013

USO's 4th Annual Caregivers Conference

On February 25, 2013 I had the opportunity to attend the USO's 4th Annual Caregivers Conference in San Diego, CA that has impacted my life in ways that I never imagined. The presentations and atmosphere as a whole has changed my life in such a positive way. There are not words that describe the impact that was made or all that has remained in my life. This conference has helped me to open up more to our life and to what we are going through, as well as openly express to others what we have been through. If our experiences and our story can help someone else out in life, then I want to help. After attending this conference I have been able to grasp how far our family has come and how far I have come as an individual. There is no doubt that we will have many hard days ahead with Kevin's injuries and I am "okay" with that because I know that the good days will guide me through the difficult ones. Those few and far between glimpses of who he use to be bring light to the darkness. I also know that bad days are okay to have, as long as I can pick myself up the following day and continue walking on with a smile. This life is one that I never anticipate, one that I never dreamed I would live. However, it is the life I have been given and with it I will make the most. I am proud of my husband and the man he is and know that despite the injuries, seen and unseen, he cannot help his actions most of the time or the way his PTSD and TBI's tend to "take over" his life and our family. I am just grateful to have him here and feel blessed that I can be here for him as his wife and caregiver. Thank you so much to the USO and everyone involved in this conference. My appreciation goes such a long way! I cannot wait to see what the next conferences have in line for the many caregivers of our wounded veterans! Thank you for all that you have done, do and will continue to do in the future!

The mission of the USO's CEO and President, Sloan Gibson spoke to all of us, expressing the mission of the USO is to lift spirits among the service members, families, veterans, and caregivers of veterans. We now fall into three of those four categories. I attended this conference as a wife of a wounded combat veteran, but also as his caregiver - which I became without even realizing it following Kevin's injuries. Sloan went over four goals of the USO, which I believe are reachable and need to happen.
  1. Sustain hope and instill confidence for a fulfilling future
  2. Keep families together and strong. Healing is so much more that operating rooms and recoveries. It goes beyond that.
  3. Have a plan for future families
  4. Help families build a network of support for the future.
The compassion in his words and confidence in his voice left me with more respect and admiration for the USO.

Sloan Gibson has held presidency with the USO since 2008 and is a graduate of United States Military Academy at West Point. He served as an Infantry Officer and earned both his Airborne and Ranger qualifications. 

Col Willard Buhl was the next person that spoke briefly to us. He spoke to us about us being caregivers and how we have to take times for ourselves. Too often caregivers experience Caregiver Fatigue and we lose our bedside manner. We become short with those around us, those that we are closest to and sometimes it takes someone on the outside to point this out. It takes the true friends and family we have to tell us we need a break, to tell us to take a "time out". What we are dealing with should not become a stigma in our lives and it should never be something that we don't want to admit.

We need to surround ourselves with people that we have a good relationship with that we trust and can help bring us back to common ground and help us to adjust. This life we are living is a team effort and if we don't work together, we won't survive it. We must learn to delegate things in our lives. Yes, I know this is a very difficult thing for many of us, but we have to learn to hand responsibilities over in life. As human beings, we will never get everything done if we are expected to keep going twenty four hours a day. As a caregiver, we must learn to take breaks and take time for ourselves.

Col Buhl, Commander, Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1981 and commissioned in 1986.

Game On Nation - Confidence Boosting and Laughter:
Learn to stay Optimistic During a Difficult Time

The next presenter is one that strongly impacted my life in a positive aspect. He is one that I am forever thankful to that touched the lives of many and is helping to change lives with his theories and ways. Steve Shenbaum is a man that I encourage you to check out and to pay close attention to his presentations. There is a real good presentation on YouTube (The Power of Honesty, Humility, and Humor) that is worth sitting down and listening to...What you will take from it is a deeper appreciation for things and those around you.

When Steve began, he stated his intention was to "move us with laughter". In the beginning he automatically started with the fact that we all need to laugh and how laughter sends off endorphins making us feel better. We listened as he spoke about connecting with others and the importance of connections. There are three rules for connecting with others that we all need to follow:
  1. Don't bounce - don't go from one person to another and never connect. Don't stare at someone, just connect. Get to know each other. This all starts with a smile. If you remember someone's eye color, you will remember their name. So, get their eye color.
  2. Are you listening or are you just waiting to talk?
  3. Don't be too cool for school. For us to move one another, we must put our cool away. No one wakes up in the morning thinking "Hey, I want people to laugh at me today". Remember to always laugh with - not at.
 Video games have four different themes/concepts that are addicting and that we need to pull away from; empowerment, mystery, competition and humor. They keep endorphins flying. Find something in life that does the same thing. Laughter and connecting will do this! Step away from video games and focus on life, the good things that bring humor and smiles. Laughter sends endorphins out that leave us wanting more. Empower people by making them feel valuable and bring humor by lifting each other up.

Steve went over "Expert Speaking" with us, explaining we are all expert speakers. We are all presenters in life, whether it be a job interview, date, teaching, or volunteering. When speaking, people are leaning into our words. Listen to the title, "Expert Speaker" - we are all experts in our lives and should all root for one another. When the Expert Speaker game was played, there were three rule: all of which we should abide by.
  1. Everything you say is correct and I will agree
  2. Everything I say is correct and I will agree
  3. Take care of one another. You take care of me and I will take care of you.
When connecting:
  1. Show it before you say it. Sit and act like an expert. Have confidence in yourself. Often, we are the pilot.
  2. When communicating with loved ones, you are the expert on you. Surround yourself with experts.
  3. Always surround yourself with people that will have your back. People that will and are clowning on you, let them go! Protect your wall and protect your space. (From my last retreat: Protect your hoop!!!)
Steve's challenge to us: Think of things that light you up, that you value. These things are called "Coins". Coins are not what you do for a living, they are things that make you shine, that put a smile on your face. When you think about them, talk about them, and share them - it completes your entire picture in life. Coins give us value.

When connecting with someone by using coins, don't fake the connection with "I understand". Connect with things that light you up - outside of being a caregiver and outside of the military. Find what you have in common. This is where connections and bonds are formed.

What are your coins? Find your value, smile, and own it!!! 

If you are an organization looking for a presenter or an individual looking for laughter and gaining strength while doing so, I encourage you to look at the video in the link a couple paragraphs above. Look at Steve's website, Game On. This is a man that has touched the lives of many, including mine. He changes outlooks, while bringing humor into a room. There are not enough words to explain how my outlook on things has changed, which in return plays a positive impact on my life.

Steve is a former actor and is now president and founder of Game On Nation. He has worked with seven No 1 overall draft picks from the NBA, NFL, and NHL, as well as numerous college athletic teams. 

What About the Kids?
Raising Children and Teens During Transition
Trevor Romain, Diana Holmes, and Melinda Morgan led this session speaking about the challenges and ways to beat these challenges. As we all know, raising kids is difficult in itself, but when you throw in raising children in a house with a wounded combat veteran, the difficulties are amplified.

What are the current challenges our children are facing?
They are not getting enough information from us as parents and adults. They are left feeling confused and worried. We need to communicate with them and explain the situation, explain the injuries and how they have affected not only the veteran, but the family as well. When our children don't have answers to issues they know exist, they will make up stories for answers. Communication is so important. Explain to them that the medications Daddy uses make him sleepy or that Dad had a big bang on his head, so we can't play how we use to - but we can still play and have fun. Explain with the head injury that dad can't handle bright lights, so that is why he keeps rooms dark when he is in them.

With age, personality, and growth, children can handle and cope with things differently. Remember this when talking and communicating with your children. When they know what is going on and they aren't acting differently, let it all go and know they are okay. Give them knowledge because it makes them feel involved. It's important to let them know they can always come to you and ask anything - no questions are silly. They don't want to "burden" you with questions because too often they hear "don't worry about it", so make sure you give your children the ability to talk. Also, remind your children that daddy/mom still love them and they are still dad/mom.

Children become "experts" at being okay, so finding a safe way to build communication - reconnect and rebuild is crucial. Give your children journals as a way to express themselves. Ask them "Did you notice..." when it comes to obvious changes in their injured parent, then follow it with "how did it make you feel?" Continue to have conversations about everyday life - not just when things happen. Let them know that we are all vulnerable and that it's okay to show emotions. It's okay to cry.

As a parent, never be afraid to show them you worry. Say more to them than, "I know how you feel", instead replace it with, "I'm worried to...". Never judge your children based on their thoughts. Talk through scenarios and give them tools when they are on their own. Give them and help them build the self-confidence to handle situations.

When someone offers to help you and your family, remember them and take them up on  it! If they didn't want to help, they wouldn't offer. We aren't wonder woman and when we feel better as a person, we will be a better parent, wife, and caregiver.

Trevor Romain, Co-Founder and President of The Comfort Crew for Military Kids. He is a best selling author and illustrator of self-help books for children, as well as a motivational speaker. Trevor has performed on many USO tours, helping military kids deal with problems they face on daily basis - from deployments to wounded parents to the loss of a loved one.

Diana Holmes is a wife to a Marine, caregiver, and mother of four children. 

Melinda Morgan, Ph. D., LCSW, Site Director Families OverComing Under Stress...or FOCUS, at Camp Pendleton

Invisible Wounds:
Post-Traumatic Stress and TBI Recognition

This session was led by Nancy Commisso, Melissa Nova, and Sarah B. AsmussenThroughout this session, we listened as the speakers hit on the invisible wounds, that we all know so well and the signs/symptoms of these injuries. PTSD leaves your veteran in a constant state of anxiety and nervousness, always uneasy with what will happen next. No matter how long the veteran lives with PTSD, it will always be an active disorder.

When your spouse, give them a sense of purpose in the home. Give him a reason. If he is unable to work outside the home, he may feel as though he has no purpose and it becomes easy to dwell on limitations and injuries, other than purposeful and positive energy. Encourage him/her to find a sense of purpose and enjoyment to keep them motivated. 

Caregivers, carrying our own sense of worry can become our own personal "PTSD". Take advantage of the mental health care that is offered for caregivers through the VA.

Nancy Commisso, Director, Military Family and Wounded Warrior Caregiver Support, Easter Seals DC/MD/VA

Melissa Novoa, Caregiver and Spouse to a medically retired Marine. She is a mother of three and full-time employee of the naval hospital at Camp Pendleton. She speaks about her experiences because if has aided in her own recovery.

Sarah Asmussen, Ph. D., Co-Senior Scientific Director and Clinical Neuropsychologist, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center

Couples Intimacy and Communication:
Breaking the Barriers to a Healthy Relationship

Life in the military adds many obstacles in our lives, but when you add in injuries; seen and unseen, the obstacles are amplified beyond what we could ever imagine. Noel Meador, Nicole James, and Chaplain (Lt.Col) Laura Bender touched on this topic. 

Our lives are slowly becoming the "new normal" as we adjust to the injuries of our veterans. This alone can raise emotions, including anger. When anger comes out, defense is made. However, anger is typically an outlet for something much deeper, such as fear, frustration,and grief. You are grieving for the loss of the present, loss of what the future is suppose to be. You have the thoughts of "he didn't die over there, but he didn't come home either". I know I for one, have this thought all the time. It often crosses my mind that physically my husband came home, but tragically not all of him returned. 

It would be helpful to you as his caregiver to take time to process all of this and to research what you and your veteran are going through. Combat injuries are a lot to take on in life and for our families. Learn the effect that the injuries will and do have on the veteran and your family. Educate yourself on the extreme highs and extreme lows that will come with the injuries and your lives. Cognitive issues and PTSD make things in life a bit more challenging. One thing to remember: Men need to be respected and admired and women need affection. As a married couple, you have to find the mixture of these things.

Noel made a good point, "The one big thing you need for communication to be affective is empathy". Always remember this. 

As humans, we are often afraid of conflict. We try to avoid it, yet what we are avoiding is a resolution to a problem. Act in a positive manner to address the conflict, which in return will lead to a successful resolution. Managing a conflict in a positive manner will leave you satisfied in the long run.

If you change dynamics in a relationship, you will see the domino effect take place. One one changes, the other will soon follow suite without realizing it.
A relationship is like a car: It requires maintenance to keep it flowing in a healthy manner. It needs a tune up after so many miles. With that being said, why do we think our relationships can go on without basic tuneups? Relationships take work and at times counseling, and that's okay. It's needed. Keep your relationship in line and remember it takes maintenance, patience, and love to keep it healthy. Feelings will follow actions most of the time. It is possible to maintain a healthy relationship and marriage after injuries if you look at it in a new way and new beginning.

Stronger Families offers a FREE 7 Day Love Challenge that is definitely worth taking time to check out.  For a small amount, you can also take the Couple Checkup. This site allows couples to restore insight and understanding in couples while they are able to hold conversations that they probably would not have held before the checkup.

Noel Meador, Executive Director, Stronger Families. Noel is dedicated to strengthening families and marriages. He works with wounded, ill, and injured military couples at various military installations and medical facilities in partnership with the USO Warrior and Family Care. Take time to look at the Stronger Families website and make an effort to attend the conferences that are being scheduled at military installations nationwide. These conferences are worth every moment that you will spend attending one.

Nicole James, Caregiver and Spouse to a Marine Sergeant. 

Chaplain (Lt. Col) Laura Bender, Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. 

About the USO Warrior and Family Care (the following is directly from the USO):
USO Warrior and Family Care  offers program support for wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers, as well as families of the fallen. This support provides a continuum of care that helps provide wounded, ill or injured warriors with the hope and confidence to sustain their journey toward full and rewarding lives. The program presents the best opportunity for our heroes to heal with honor. It also supports the troops' families and caregivers throughout the recovery process, as well as giving assistance to families of the fallen.

USO's support of wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers continues today and has expanded to encompass many critical facets of life, including physical and recreational activities, behavioral health support, family strengthening, education, employment training, and community reintegration support. In order to support wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers, USO Warrior and Family Care offers multiple programs and partnerships with best-in-class organizations.

Follow the USO's website to find out when future Caregivers Conferences will be held so that you or someone you know can register to attend.


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