Ilihia Gionson

Know that there are so many other caregivers feeling the same way: waiting, wishing, hoping to connect.

At what moment did you realize you were a military caregiver?

Picking up the pieces in the wake of my mother’s passing made me understand how much support she had been providing my father for their whole life together.

How has your life changed since you became a caregiver? What sacrifices have you had to make?

Adding the layer of caregiver to the father-son relationship helped me to grow stronger, to prioritize activities and pursuits. There have been some frivolities that I’ve skipped in my young life, but I can’t say it wasn’t worth it.

How has the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, the Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community, or any EDF programs affected your life?

My first substantive connection with the veteran caregiving community came through an EDF Fellow who I met professionally and developed a close friendship with. Her advocacy of the Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community played a big part in connecting me to the resources that help me better care for my father.

My Story

In Hawaiʻi, caring for the elderly is part of the native culture. So when it was time for Ilihia to care for his father Anthony, he naturally stepped into the caregiver role. 

Anthony was born in Hawaiʻi in 1947 and served in Vietnam in 1966 when he was 19. His time in Vietnam, with a climate and people who reminded him of home, was one of a series of transformational moments for him. Hawaiʻi had only recently become an American state, and he returned home to a mother close to the end of her life. In the decades following his return, he worked very hard for his family, including being a caregiver to his wife with a genetic kidney disorder and his son with Down syndrome. Ilihia believes his tireless work ethic was his father’s coping mechanism for dealing with the invisible wounds of war. It was not until after Ilihia’s mother and brother passed away that Anthony transformed from the caregiver to the care recipient. Ilihia learned about his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when his father started going to grief counseling sessions and began unpacking his invisible wounds resulting from his service. 

Anthony lives with Ilihia, his partner, and their daughter, who all help care for him. As his father’s primary caregiver, Ilihia manages his appointments and medications, performs household chores, and listens to his father when he needs to talk. Anthony’s PTSD and anxiety make it difficult for him to participate in group activities, so Ilihia works hard to get his father out of the house, including getting him to the proper treatment for therapy at the VA.  

Ilihia is the principal of his own consulting and public relations firm, Hiehie Communications. Ilihia previously worked in the office of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, supporting veterans and caregivers by connecting them with constituent services to receive the help they need. As a fellow, he hopes to help other veterans and caregivers in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific who struggle with access to VA resources. He also hopes that by sharing his story, he will help other caregivers self-identify and seek out support.