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A Community of Caregivers: Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellows Share Their Stories

“Despite how diverse this group is – spanning generations, gender and geography – what connects us is a sense of duty, delivering on America’s promise by caring for those who served.” – Ilihia Gionson, Hawaii Dole Caregiver Fellow

Millions of spouses, parents, family members and friends dedicate themselves to providing care, love and support to our wounded, ill and injured Veterans and service members – devoting themselves to the rewarding and difficult work of caregiving.

For many, becoming a caregiver is something new and unexpected, an experience they aren’t always prepared for. Caregiving can be isolating and overwhelming – not knowing what resources are available to help or who else can begin to understand what you’re going through.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, founded in 2012, works to empower, strengthen, and support military caregivers throughout their journeys. With several programs designed to provide them with support, the Foundation is a life-changing and critical resource for millions of caregivers across our country.

We asked four Dole Caregiver Fellows to share their caregiving stories with us. They responded with openness and honesty, discussing their struggles and successes, important resources they’ve discovered and what they’ve learned along the way.

Sharon Grassi, Arizona Dole Caregiver Fellow, Cares for Her Son Derek

Sharon Grassi’s journey to becoming a caregiver began while her son Derek was still on active duty. Derek was a combat medic in the Army for several years – one who preferred combat missions to aid station work.Sharon Grassi’s son Derek on active duty.

Sharon recalled the particular moment that would define the start of her caregiving journey.

“It was in the minutes after I was told that my son had attempted suicide,” she remembered. This was the first time she took action and stepped into the middle of his medical journey.

“Derek was still active duty – moms aren’t supposed to step in,” she said, but Sharon felt she was responding as any mom would. It wasn’t until years later, after a friend pointed it out, that Sharon realized she had become her son’s caregiver.

“It took some time, but I finally realized she was right,” she said.

Sharon’s care and support for Derek proved invaluable. A few years ago, Derek was on the verge of losing both legs from non-healing wounds. Doctors were perplexed. Using a tip from another caregiver, Sharon created a digital book for her son’s medical team adding medical records, images, incidents and more.

“It helped them understand small and large symptoms, in chronological order, that led up to a very serious problem,” she explained.

Based on images from Sharon’s book, a doctor was able to find the problem and her son’s wounds are now almost completely healed.

But these successes haven’t come without sacrifice. Sharon shared honestly that she wasn’t prepared for what caregiving would mean, especially for her personal goals and growth.

“My employers didn’t get the memo on how to work with caregivers,” she said. “I lost a career I loved, our retirement plans had to be adjusted, and, for a time, my individuality was threatened.”

But Sharon and her family adjusted. They sold their home for one that gave everyone their own space. They adjusted to less income through budgeting, and she changed her career goals as well.

“I redefined my career from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector,” she said.

Along the way, Sharon learned the value of community.

“The Dole Caregiver Fellows are some of the most amazing, educated, and supportive humans I’ve ever been associated with,” she shared.

Of the Veterans she’s met she said, “I’m blessed beyond measure to be included among this wonderful group of individuals.”

Finding a community is something she advises others to do as well. “You can do this alone, but it’s so much harder and more detrimental to your own mental health. Find a community of support, lean on other caregivers, and find things to do that make you laugh and grow.”Derek and Echo

For many, this community of military family caregivers can be found within the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The Foundation is full of caregivers with similar stories, as well as invaluable resources. Sharon remembered a time when Derek had back-to-back surgeries just before Thanksgiving. As a parent, she was torn between caring for Derek and wanting her other children to experience a “normal Thanksgiving.”

“The Foundation jumped in to provide respite care. While I focused on my son, someone else cleaned and organized my home. I was able to relax, cook and enjoy all of my children,” she recalled.

Sharon has established a nonprofit that brings together community members, Veterans and their families. As they work alongside each other, they have conversations and build common ground. “Through these conversations, community members have brought unlimited ideas, opportunities and programs of support to Veteran families.”

Brian Vines, Texas Dole Caregiver Fellow, Cares for His Wife Natalie

Brian Vines and his wife both served in the Army for many years. Natalie was medically retired from the Army in 2013 and Brian retired in 2012 to become her full-time caregiver. He described the transition into caregiving this way: “I was a caregiver before I knew what a caregiver was.”Brian and Natalie Vines

In 2005, Natalie suffered her first traumatic brain injury (TBI) while deployed in Iraq. She returned home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but was very focused on being successful in the Army. In 2009, she was injured again and her TBI produced grand mal seizures, severe migraines, a cognitive disorder, visual issues, balance issues and severe PTSD. She returned unable to function as an Army officer and began attending numerous inpatient and outpatient treatments for TBI, PTSD and suicide attempts.

At first, Brian did his best to accommodate her hidden injuries and support her and her desire to continue her career, but after her second injury he said, “I realized I could not take care of her and be successful in the Army, so I retired.”

Brian shared that serving as his wife’s caregiver has brought them closer together both emotionally and spiritually, but like Sharon, Brian was honest in that he was totally unprepared to be a caregiver.

“The sacrifices of my career, personal pursuits and free time were overwhelming at first,” he admitted.

Brian had no experience and no idea how to give his wife the support she needed. But when he learned about the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, he realized there were other individuals with similar experiences – called caregivers.

“Up to that point, I thought my care of Natalie was part of being a loving husband,” Brian said.

He began to identify as a caregiver and was able to access numerous resources and a family of like-minded Fellows. He now tells other caregivers – “You are not alone. Your situation is not helpless. Be a part of a peer support group. Don’t try to do it alone.”Natalie and Brian Vines

Brian became a Fellow in 2015 and now serves as President of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation Alumni Association. Throughout his journey, he has learned many practical, valuable lessons to share with others. He points out that caregiver fatigue will happen, and it’s important to have a plan for respite. He and his wife have leaned on the Foundation and other military and Veteran organizations for support, participating in several couples activities together.

Brian reminds caregivers to take care of themselves. “You have value,” he said. “Schedule regular medical and dental appointments, seek counseling, do something physical and seek comfort in religion or meditation.”

Like Sharon, Brian also shared the importance of documenting injuries, medications, care team members and treatments.

“Create a binder that contains all of these items – along with frequently required documents like your Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits letter or insurance information,” he said.

Brian credits his tough love and their faith for helping him and Natalie on their journey together, but he also cheers the incredible work of the Foundation.Natalie and Brian Vines with Elizabeth Dole.

“The Foundation has been the single most important tool in my caregiver tool chest,” Brian explained.

He values the purpose, respite and opportunities it has given him.

“It has connected me with caregivers with similar experiences, given me respite and kept me informed of caregiver legislation and initiatives.” And maybe most importantly, he shared, “It has given me a family.”

Ilihia Gionson, Hawaii Dole Caregiver Fellow, Cares for His Father Anthony

Ilihia Gionson grew up in Hawaii – a place, he said, where kids grow up with an understanding that they have a responsibility to care for their elders.Anthony Gionson serving in Vietnam.

“No matter what else one accomplishes or achieves in life, the call to care for a family member is a calling that one heeds,” Ilihia said.

Ilihia has a way with words that led him to accomplish a lot – a career that’s included print and broadcast journalism, as well as private sector and government communications work. Ilihia now works as a public affairs officer at the Hawaii Tourism Authority serving as a spokesperson for Hawaii’s largest industry.

But true to the culture he grew up in, Ilihia answered the call to care for his father Anthony who served in Vietnam as a young man. Their caregiving journey began during a time of great loss in their immediate family – after Ilihia’s mother and brother passed.

“My father took the courageous step of seeking grief counseling,” he shared.

In his very first session, he discovered that much of his sadness was not from his most recent losses – instead, it was from his experiences in Vietnam. Once he understood he was suffering from depression, anxiety and PTSD, the healing could begin.Ilihia Gionson helping his father with medications.

“Helping him keep it together and get through those tough times was my introduction to military caregiving,” Ilihia said.

Just as Brian and his wife have grown closer, Ilihia’s relationship with his father has strengthened as well.

“My father and I are much closer than we ever have been,” he said. “Growing up, I wrote off his distant nature, but today I understand that shutting down was a mechanism for him to survive and provide for our family.”

Ilihia and his father now have open, candid conversations.

“Ensuring he is OK every day is truly a gift. I appreciate being able to give back to someone who gave us all so much,” Ilihia said.

Like the other caregivers, Ilihia faced many challenges as he began taking care of his father. For one, Anthony wasn’t always ready to accept help. At one point, his father decided he didn’t need caregiving and wanted to “go it alone.”

“It was one of the most difficult times of my life seeing him forgo the help I wanted so badly to give him,” Ilihia reflected.

Eventually, they had a successful intervention and got back on track.

From these ups and downs, Ilihia has learned important lessons.

“Caregiving moves at the speed of trust,” he shared. “For some people, coming to terms with needing a caregiver is a difficult thing to accept. Patience, perseverance and prayers got us over the hump.”

Ilihia pointed out that listening closely is also critical.

“My father often shares really important bits of information in very casual ways – sometimes with a laugh, sometimes as a throwaway,” he said.Ilihia with his father.

So critical in their case that after listening to a joking comment of his father’s, Ilihia was able to find and secure several items that could have been used for self-harm.

“I’m so thankful that he hung on through that hard time,” Ilihia said.

Like the other Fellows, Ilihia opened up about how lonely caregiving can be. “Surrounding yourself with those experiencing similar things can help you get through tough times,” he said. “The camaraderie amongst caregivers has been extremely helpful to me.”

Ilihia hopes to raise the profile of military and Veteran caregivers so that those who are doing this special work can connect with support along the way. “Despite how diverse this group is – spanning generations, gender and geography,” Ilihia shared, “What connects us is a sense of duty, delivering on America’s promise by caring for those who served.”

Linzi Andersen, Idaho Dole Caregiver Fellow, Cares for Her Husband Micah

Linzi Andersen lives in Eagle, Idaho with her two sons and her husband, Micah Andersen.Linzi Andersen with her two sons and husband Micah Andersen.

“We moved back to Idaho in 2017 after Micah was medically retired from the Army,” Linzi said.

Since moving back, the Andersen’s have been busy – accumulating two llamas, two Texas Longhorn cows, two Irish Wolfhound dogs, two cats – and occasionally adding in chickens and turkeys to raise.

“The mini farm life has been an amazing way to slow down and enjoy the little things,” she shared.

On June 1, 2013, Micah stepped on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan, instantly losing both of his legs and sustaining other life-threatening injuries. Linzi didn’t know it at the time, but as soon as he was stable enough to get back to Fort Sam Houston, she would begin her new role as his caregiver.

Even though she didn’t know what she was getting into, Linzi has found great purpose and many “silver linings” in becoming a caregiver.

“The amount of time I get to spend caring for the ones I love has truly been a gift,” she said.

As a military spouse, Linzi knows if her husband was still on active duty, much of his time would probably be spent working in the field or away on deployment.

“In some ways being able to stay home and care for him has been a huge blessing for us to all be together as a family,” she said.

Linzi said for her, the biggest challenges are often the unknown ones.

“I’ve become someone who has to think five steps ahead and think through all scenarios of what could happen,” Linzi shared. “I know I can’t anticipate every little thing, but I have found myself trying to be extra prepared.”

Dedicated caregivers like Linzi often struggle to find a balance. “You are caring for everyone and it’s hard to take time away. If you aren’t doing all the things, you wonder – will everyone be OK?” she explained.

But Linzi combats this with an important lesson she’s learned: “Find your people.” She admits it isn’t easy, but it’s important to have a safe space where you can speak about your challenges.

“Find a caregiver group or a friend who understands what you’re going through,” she said. “Through the Foundation, I found an amazing group of individuals who get what I’m going through and want to take their tragedies and turn them into beautiful stories.”Linzi Andersen with her husband Micah Andersen.

Linzi has also sought out therapy from VA and recommends it to other caregivers as a way to work through the trauma.

“I am always trying to carry the load of my husband’s injuries and have realized the toll it’s taken on me and my mental health,” she said. “I had no idea I was grieving a life I hadn’t anticipated.”

Linzi is now spreading awareness about the incredible resources of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. She has teamed up with Daughters of the American Revolution to reach people across the state of Idaho.

“We are educating their members on the resources of the Foundation, encouraging anyone who identifies as a caregiver to register on their site,” Linzi said.

She isn’t stopping there. She’s working with all 44 counties in Idaho to get them to become Hidden Heroes Counties.

“My hope as a Fellow is to continue to share my story so others do not feel so alone. I want others to know there are resources out there and people who get it,” Linzi said.

Sharon, Brian, Ilihia and Linzi – thank you. Thank you for telling your stories, for speaking honestly about your daily triumphs and setbacks, for sharing the wisdom you’ve learned along the way, and for caring for America’s heroes every day.

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