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The Sudden Reality of Becoming a Caregiver

Bob Edwards talks about Lee and Bob Woodruff's life-changing event in Iraq and with caregiving expert Amy Goyer

A woman take care of an older man sitting in a wheelchair

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Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards.

Wilma Consul: And I'm Wilma Consul.

Bob Edwards: With an AARP Take on Today.

Announcer: 3-2, there it is. The Washington Nationals are world champions for the first time in franchise history.

Wilma Consul: So Bob, how about them Nationals? Huh?

Bob Edwards: The World Series champion Washington Nationals.

Wilma Consul: Yup.

Bob Edwards: Amazing. They were at one point 19-31 and they had been written off. You know, it's like, maybe next year guys.

Wilma Consul: Yes.

Bob Edwards: But no, they came back from that. That's an extraordinary comeback. Winning four games on the road in the World Series. Of course, that means they lost three games at home in the World Series, but still, that's extraordinary. Pitcher max Scherzer had a great line after they won last week. He said, "The old guys can do it. We have the experience and we don't fold under pressure."

Wilma Consul: Well, there are a lot of people who don't fold under pressure, and that's very relevant for our show today.

Bob Edwards: That's right. Veterans don't fold under pressure. Caregivers don't fold under pressure, and the Nats didn't fold under pressure.

Wilma Consul: This show is dedicated to those who don't fold under pressure. Military service members and veterans as well as America's 40 million family caregivers.

Bob Edwards: Today we'll hear how a catastrophic event in Iraq has changed the lives of veteran journalist bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee.

Wilma Consul: Also, Amy Goyer, AARP family caregiving expert, will join us to discuss the reality of suddenly becoming a caregiver.

News Reporter: We have some breaking news to report. Our co-anchor of World News Tonight, Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, were injured in an attack ...

News Reporter: Developments on the condition of ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff ...

News Reporter: Bob and Doug were quickly evacuated to a ...

News Reporter: Both have head injuries. They are in the hospital.

News Reporter: All we really know is both are in very serious condition.

Bob Edwards: In 2006 Bob Woodruff was still in his first year as co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight. While covering the War in Iraq, Woodruff's armored vehicle was hit by roadside bomb and his life changed in an instant. Woodruff and ABC cameraman, Doug Vogt, both underwent surgery for life-threatening head injuries. Back home, Woodruff's wife, Lee, was on vacation with their children when she received the call that would thrust her into the role of caregiver.

Woodruff spent 36 days in a medically induced coma before beginning his long road to recovery. But thanks to the quick actions of soldiers, medics and military medical professionals, his life was saved. Lee and Bob have since founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation to assist injured service members and their families.

Bob Woodruff: We need to do more to help those that are returning and to identify, especially, those that are injured with those kinds of injuries that are not necessarily seen.

Bob Edwards: To date, the foundation has reached more than 2.5 million veterans and families and raised more than $70 million for grassroots organizations and programs helping veterans reintegrate into their communities. Joining us today to share her family's story is Lee Woodruff. Welcome to the show, Lee.

Lee Woodruff: Well, thank you. It's wonderful to be on. Thanks for having me.

Wilma Consul: Just imagine your agony of 36 days, your husband in a coma. What was wake-up day like for you?

Lee Woodruff: Oh my goodness. Wake up day was surreal because they had just said to me the day before, "I don't know if he's going to wake up," and I had been touring nursing home facilities, because they were really sort of cautioning me, this isn't going in the right direction. Bob woke up in a way that most people who've been in a medically induced coma don't wake up. He woke up all of a sudden full of love and just sort of telling everyone how beautiful they were, but speaking a lot of gibberish, not really having his words.

Bob Edwards: Oh my gosh, I can just imagine what that was like for him.

Lee Woodruff: I was in shock. In fact, he called me. He asked the medic or the nurse next to him to give him a phone, and I asked who it was, because I was so disoriented, I could not believe that my husband would be calling me. Can you imagine?

Bob Edwards: What did his recovery look like?

Lee Woodruff: Gosh, a recovery from a brain injury is a very, very long ordeal. The saying that everybody in the brain injury world always uses is, it's a marathon, not a sprint. That is certainly the case with a brain injury. In the early days, it was almost magical, because the brain re-knits those neurons a millimeter a month. Every day, I would walk in the hospital room and I would see improvement, and then you get to a point where it doesn't so much plateau as you might have a great day of moving forward, and then two days of payback day where it doesn't quite go as well, because part of the hallmark of a brain injury is absolute fatigue. There's always that sort of payback from all the growth and the studying hard and working hard.

Bob Edwards: Did he have any memory of what happened to him or did he block that out?

Lee Woodruff: I think that memory came back little by little. Honestly, the bomb when it went off, it must've been sort of a flash and then an instant getting knocked out, so he can remember some of the things leading up to it, but I think unlike maybe another kind of injury where you're conscious for a little while before you slip out, that sort of was erased.

Bob Edwards: Well, like so many, you were unexpectedly thrust into the role of caregiver. Tell me about that experience.

Lee Woodruff: It's a word, and I struggle with so many other folks in the caregiving situation, because there is no perfect word for that. Caregiver sounds so dutiful, and when you're somebody's wife or daughter or loved one, it's just sort of simply what you do. But certainly in my mind, that wasn't a role that I imagined playing with Bob for decades. If life was supposed to follow the script that we all believe it might, when we stand at the alter and take those vows. I assumed somewhere toward the end of our Twilight years, one of us would care for the other.

I think like so many people, so many veterans, and this is just a wonderful month to honor our veterans and others just randomly, it is a shock and there's a period during which you just sort of operate on adrenaline and then that gives out at some point, because we're all human, and then you have to come to grips with the fact that your life has changed. That's the hard part. That's the part that people don't necessarily talk about as much.

Bob Edwards: Bob is not a military veteran and yet you established this foundation that helps veterans.

Lee Woodruff: We did. Bob was brought back to Walter Reed. He stayed within the military system of medicine, obviously. When he was injured, he was taken to the battlefield surgery center and then stayed within the system and flown back to Bethesda Naval Hospital, not Walter Reed, sorry, where he was cared for. It was there we met and witnessed so many of our amazing military families. Bob had been covering wars and conflicts and embedded with the military, so he knew so much about the culture, but for me it was new, and I was so struck. We're so divided now in this country without a draft, and so we don't necessarily come in contact with military families.

They were so humble. No one considered themselves any kind of hero, and it was shocking to me to learn that when everybody left the acute care hospitals, Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval, and went back to their home, to the VAs wherever they lived, that care was really asymmetric in the sense that people sometimes had to drive three hours to get to the nearest VA hospital. That just seemed wrong and it seemed that we had this story that got outsized attention compared to the people undergoing these injuries every day, and we needed to do something with that story. We needed to use it for some good to raise the money.

Bob Edwards: When did you start the foundation?

Lee Woodruff: Well, Bob has three brothers, and we looked at each other and we said, "If Bob wakes up and we get through this and we're in a good enough place where I'm able to do this and not taking care of somebody in a vegetative state in a nursing home and raising four young kids, we need to start a foundation." It began to be clear a few months into it that things were going in the right direction, and we published a book "In an Instant" that came out about a year later after his injury. It was really just sort of based on the bones of my journal. As a writer, I just started writing what was happening.

When the book came out and we were on book tour, and we actually, I believe, talked to you then as well at some point in that journey, people just kept handing us money and checks and saying, "Will you make sure that this gets to a soldier?" We very quickly opened up a 501(c)3, and then that grew into the Bob Woodruff Foundation. We realized that we didn't have any specialties, we couldn't build houses or do research, but we were in this position as two journalists, and Bob especially, traveling the world and the country and me being on book tours, we could see the organizations out there in America that were helping and we could sort of have an eye on the landscape and determine where funds might best be used to help people in the most expeditious and efficient way.

Bob Edwards: Then you shifted from focusing solely on Bob's recovery to wanting to help others.

Lee Woodruff: That's right. Yeah.

Bob Edwards: Whose idea was it to start the foundation?

Lee Woodruff: I think it really organically grew with his brothers and myself. I really do. I think we, we're so grateful. It also seemed, and I think so many of your listeners will probably relate to this, when something bad happens, it almost feels like you have to do something so that there's a reason for it, because people say things happen for a reason, which is a saying that I absolutely hate, because I don't think they do happen for a reason. I don't think somebody gets killed by a drunk driver because they were a bad person or a child gets cancer for a reason. I think things happen here on earth because that's life. But when you can find a way to make something positive come out of it, it just feels better. I think that was incumbent upon his family and myself to just do something with that legacy.

Bob Edwards: How many veterans and families are being served?

Lee Woodruff: I believe the figure, don't quote me, I think it is over 2 million veterans have been touched and affected, and I heard you say we have raised and given away $70 million in grants to various organizations, and on Monday night, which is probably why my voice sounds a little more Brenda Vaccaro than usual, Monday night was our Stand Up For Heroes, annual fundraiser in New York at Madison Square Garden with Sheryl Crow and John Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, John Oliver and others and all of these folks giving their time and talent for free to the vets. We raised in the room that night with the tickets and donations, $5.7 million. We're so to go put that to some good use this year.

Bob Edwards: I Imagine among the people you helped, you heard quite a few stories yourself.

Lee Woodruff: Absolutely, and that's an ongoing thing for me and one which I consider a privilege. I will take many calls or emails from people who are a friend of a friend of a friend, someone's been in a car accident, some child's had a sports injury or concussion, and I feel like that's my duty to pass that back on and to be that person who's there to say, "It feels so scary right now and it is scary, but I am here to tell you 13 years later that this will be okay. Whatever okay looks like, you will come through this, you will establish this new place in life and you will find some kind of easy peace with with it. It doesn't mean that you won't have days where you grieve, but it will never quite feel as awful as it does right now.

Bob Edwards: How's the foundation doing and what plans do you have for it?

Lee Woodruff: The foundation is just wonderful. It was incredible to watch the Bob Woodruff Foundation team pull together on Monday night to do this event, because it takes so much. We're really focused on three areas over the next little while. The great thing about being an organization that can look at where the issues are and make grants is we can really pivot very quickly. Right now, we are just experiencing an incredible spike in suicide rates among veterans and post traumatic stress. That's a very important bucket for our giving and granting and trying to find ways to do that and help in that way.

I'm passionate, no surprise, about caregivers. That's another bucket where we look to support the caregivers and the children in the family, because we know that that equation is so important. If they feel like they're getting their oxygen, they can take care of that person who's injured. Then lastly, employment remains an issue. When someone can't return to the service that they've wanted to be in, then helping them find ways to use their time and talent to find a new career path. We've forged two really great partnerships as well. One with Sesame Street. They do a lot of work. They have a wonderful veteran program that focuses on families and caregivers and helping kids work through what to do when a parent is injured. And with the NFL helping them drive the money that they receive. They get so many generous donations from fans every year to go to military organizations, and working with them to help programs that will ultimately impact people on the ground that also happened to be football fans, which is kind of fun.

Bob Edwards: It's hard enough to be the spouse of someone who goes running all over the world chasing stories, but you landed in something you had not signed on for.

Lee Woodruff: I did, and I guess that's ... I always knew that as a journalist, especially a war correspondent, Bob, of course, was in the crosshairs, and yet I think about our service members who feel that every single day and when they marry somebody who serves or they serve themselves or in many cases it's both the husband and wife, they have that feeling constantly as do their family members. That's very humbling to me.

Bob Edwards: Thank you so much.

Lee Woodruff: Thank you, and happy Veteran's Month to everyone out there who serves.

Wilma Consul: Caring for a wounded, ill or injured service member or veteran may be one of the most challenging tasks someone can take on, but it could also be one of the most rewarding. There are 5 million military and veteran caregivers in the US today. For many, an injured suffered in a war or conflict has forged a path to the caring for the veteran returning home. For others, it may have started with as something as simple as driving to the grocery store or going to a doctor's appointment. In a moment, we'll explore the different stages in the journey of caregiving for veterans and shedding light for us on this topic is Amy Goyer. She's AARP's family caregiving expert and who has been a caregiver herself for her parents and other family members. Amy is also a friend of Lee Woodruff, who we just heard speaking with Bob Edwards. Hello, Amy.

Amy Goyer: Hi. It's great to be here.

Wilma Consul: Thanks for being here. Bob Woodruff, he's not a veteran, but his injuries and experience were like of a veterans. You've worked with a lot of caregivers and you yourself were a caregiver. I was a caregiver, as well, along with my siblings, for our mother who had cancer. But caregiving for a veteran, how is that different?

Amy Goyer: Well, when you're caregiving for a veteran, there's the whole VA and you have the support of Veterans Affairs, but you also have the challenges of it. It's a system that is very arduous to deal with, and at the same time, once you get the benefits, they are absolutely life changing. They can make such a huge difference. My dad was a veteran of World War II and Korea, and he never availed himself of his veterans benefits until he was older and I enrolled him in Veterans Health Care and he also got Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits.

What I learned was that you have to just stay with it. It took a year to get those Aid and Attendance benefits, and you have to really, really work and advocate for your loved ones with the system in order to get those benefits and supports that they're needed.

Wilma Consul: There are different generations of veterans, your dad, Korea and we also have the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan and all that.

Amy Goyer: Vietnam.

Wilma Consul: Vietnam. How is it different for younger veterans and caring for an elderly veteran?

Amy Goyer: It's interesting, many of the older veterans like my dad really hadn't maintained, been involved in the VA system for years and years and years, and then they're sort of just coming back into it. For the more recent post-9/11 veterans, for one thing, they have a little bit more familiarity with the military, with the systems involved, so they are often given support in terms of that transition.

They also have some supports that are available to post-9/11 veterans now that aren't currently available for pre-9/11 veterans. For example, there's a program where they can get a stipend for caring for their loved ones. It's not a ton of money, but it's something that makes a difference, especially if you're not able to work in the same way that you were before you were caregiving.

Wilma Consul: For many veterans, we see sufferings from, you mentioned it earlier, the traumatic brain injuries, the PTSD and of course depression. How does this dynamic play into caregiving?

Amy Goyer: When you're caring for someone who is grappling with PTSD and depression, it's much more draining for the caregiver as well. For example, if you're caring for a loved one who has PTSD because of military service, they may have anger outbursts, they may have rage that is just directed whoever's close by and that might be you. It's incredibly distressing to see these changes in someone that you love, who in some ways it really affects their personalities. It affects your intimacy and your relationship with that person. That can be more draining and more likely to have mental health issues for the caregivers as well.

Wilma Consul: Sometimes there's this burnout. I mean, and fatigue, and then you get depressed yourself. How can caregivers take care of themselves?

Amy Goyer: One of the first things that I tell caregivers to think about is the fact that it's not selfish, it's just practical. One of the biggest barriers to caregivers caring for themself is that they feel guilty about it. It's, my loved ones are so vulnerable. They need all of my energy. I shouldn't take time.

Wilma Consul: I am guilty of that.

Amy Goyer: Yes. I think every caregiver has felt that way, at least on some level. I learned that I could not keep going. Caregivers give and give and give, and then you can be empty. You have to replenish it. I'll share with you my little analogy that worked for me and continues to work for me. One time when I almost ran out of gas, I went to the gas station and the car was on fumes and I was so relieved that I filled it up and I didn't break down. As I was pulling out, I thought, "Well, the car runs better with a full tank of gas."

That was my "aha" moment, because, well, duh, right? But it really made me realize that I was expecting myself to run on empty and be just as efficient and constantly on empty. It made it a very practical thing for me. I look at things that fill my tank, quick things like getting a cup of coffee or calling a friend, more intense things like taking a yoga class or going golfing or hiking or spending the evening with a friend or going to a movie.

Wilma Consul: That's the hard part, right?

Amy Goyer: That's the hardest, because you put it last, again, you use more hours of the day to get things done and then you don't sleep as much, but that deteriorates your ability to cope.

Wilma Consul: Yeah.

Amy Goyer: Eating healthy, exercising, it might be counseling or therapy, it might be getting a massage on a regular basis. Whatever it is for you, that keeps you going.

Wilma Consul: It's harder for women too, because we always tell women, take care of yourselves. We're naturally caregivers and nurturers, right?

Amy Goyer: Yes.

Wilma Consul: It's really needed. The important part, you talked about the guilt. For me, it was dancing.

Amy Goyer: Oh really?

Wilma Consul: I had to go. But I had to move to California for a few months to help take care of my mother, and my dance class is in San Francisco and we were staying across the Bay. That alone, that takes a long time.

Amy Goyer: Yes.

Wilma Consul: But there's always a guilt. It's like, "Okay, I have to go back home. I can't really go have dinner."

Amy Goyer: Yeah. I shouldn't be having fun when they're suffering or you perceive that they are suffering.

Wilma Consul: Yeah. But it's really important to do that, and now when I have friends who are caregiving, I kind of remind them, it's like, "Don't feel guilty if you have to do something for yourself."

Amy Goyer: Yeah, because you're really doing it for them too, because it makes you a better caregiver.

Wilma Consul: What kind of resources should our caregivers or people who are listening to us who know caregivers, can you give us some resources that they should know about?

Amy Goyer: Well, let's start in terms of veterans. If you are thrust into a veteran caregiving situation or a military serviceman, you want to go to the VA Caregiver Support program first. It's just caregiver.va.gov, and you will be able to get somebody who can help you understand the systems. That's the hardest part when you're a veteran or military caregiver. Where do I go first? How do I get this done? What do I need? They'll say, "Well, do you have the DD-214.

Wilma Consul: What is that?

Amy Goyer: Well, I had no idea what that was with my dad, but thankfully he had it in a file, but many veterans can't locate, and that is their discharge papers.

Wilma Consul: Okay.

Amy Goyer: You need to locate that, and they'll explain that and how you can find it, et cetera. You want to go to that kind of support. The other kind of support that you want to look at is your local area agency on aging, if you're caring for older veterans, and even if you're not caring for a veteran, these are the great supports for you. You want to also find out what other local services are available. AARP has a community resource finder that you can put in your zip code and you can look at for caring for people at home and medical and transportation. If you're caring for someone with dementia, we have some special resources they're provided by the Alzheimer's Association, support groups, et cetera.

Wilma Consul: Wow.

Amy Goyer: You want to to kind of find out what the support is and then you have to assess your situation. Figure out what are your loved one's needs right now? What are their medical conditions? What's their mental health condition? What's their living situation? What are their financial resources in terms of the care? Get the lay of the land, and assess yourself too, because you really need to have a realistic view of what you can provide yourself and think about where the gaps are.

Then you want to add to that what other family members and team members can do, and your team is not just family. Really important to think bigger than that. If family is your only team, you're probably going to have a small team. But if you have a safety net of these local agencies, even national agencies like AARP or disease-specific organizations have a lot of support. Sometimes they have practical things like transportation to doctor's appointments or dialysis.

Wilma Consul: We will put the links on our show notes. If you were writing frantically, don't worry, we'll put it in our show notes. Amy, I get the sense that a lot of people might think of caregiving as a burden, but I'm sure there's the other side to that. There's some joy to that.

Amy Goyer: Absolutely. I tell caregivers, joy is our greatest survival skill. We have to create and notice the little inherent joys that happen all day long that if we get so caught up in the stress and in doing, doing, doing, we miss them. Things like when I would tuck my mom in bed, I just always will remember the sweet look on her face and she just felt safe, you could tell, and secure and happy that I was there with her. Little things like my dad saying my name, because he had dementia. Those were things that you could just go, "Oh yeah, he said my name." No, "He said my name!"

You have to notice that having a little hug, noticing the way that someone is able to connect with you even for a moment. You have to treasure those moments. Then create joy. You got to have fun. Play and fun fill our tanks, so create those things. Play games. We used to have fun Friday adventures every Friday with my parents. I'd take my mom to get her hair done, because she had to have her hair done every week.

Wilma Consul: Of course. Yes.

Amy Goyer: Then go out to eat or go shopping. Those were our adventures. We watched a lot of movies together. We cooked and baked together. Those things aren't always easy to do. Even just going out for a cup of coffee with my parents wasn't easy, but you make the extra effort. I took care of my sister also some, and she had Cushing disease, so she had a lot of health issues around that. Mobility was tough for her. But I got her out to get crabs. She lived in Maryland, and you know how important that is to people in Maryland. That's the joy. That's what we're here for. Quality of life is just as important when you're caregiving as the health care, and it's good for us and the people we care for.

Wilma Consul: It's the little joy that that counts.

Amy Goyer: Yes, those moments that light you up.

Wilma Consul: Thank you so much. Amy Goyer is AARP's family caregiving expert. Amy, thank you so much for sharing.

Amy Goyer: Thank you. It's been wonderful to be here with you.

Bob Edwards: For more visit aarp.org/preparetocare to find more caregiving resources and to download the military guide.

Wilma Consul: Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

Bob Edwards: I'm Bob Edwards.

Wilma Consul: And I'm Wilma Consul.

Bob Edwards: Thanks for listening.

Wilma Consul: And remember to thank a veteran.

Listen in to hear how a catastrophic event in Iraq changed Lee and Bob Woodruff’s life. And caregiving expert Amy Goyer sheds light on the reality of suddenly becoming a caregiver.

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