Hospice counselors provide support to end-of-life veterans and their caregivers.
World War II veterans and members of the “Silent Generation” are going to their deathbeds in silence.
The “Silent Generation” is the label for Americans born between 1925 and 1945. Most were strongly influenced by the Great Depression and World War II, and participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars. These men and women were taught that “loose lips sink ships.”
Dying is a time of life review and reconciliation. A dying veteran may need to share his or her wartime experience with a trusted companion or family member but doesn’t know how.
Heart to Heart
About 15 years ago as a hospice counselor, I was providing support to a dying veteran and his 22-year-old caregiver son. This was before I had much exposure and training to the special needs of veterans and their families. The veteran had lung cancer. His wife died of the same disease several years before.
After his mother’s death, the son dealt with his grief by getting in trouble with the law. The son had spent time in jail for minor crimes and was on house arrest. He had recently started back to college and was trying to turn his life around.
His father was worried about his son’s future and being left alone in the world. The father was also concerned he and his son never had any heart-to-heart talks. He was taught not to talk about feelings and never discussed his wife’s death with his son.
The son called the hospice team for an emergency visit when his father was having trouble breathing. His father was lying on his hospital bed in the living room. When we arrived at the house, the nurse quickly surmised that the father was going into the dying process. There were no funeral arrangements.
History Comes Alive
I knew our patient was a veteran. The son knew his father wanted to be cremated and put next to his wife in the national cemetery. I asked the son if he had his father’s DD-214, his discharge papers. We went into his father’s office and started going through his papers.
The son only knew his father had served in the Navy as a young man. He said his father never talked about it. We found a diary and a map. His father had been on the USS Missouri at the end of WWII when the surrender was signed with Japan. The map showed where the ship had traveled.
We took the box of papers out into the living room so the son could be near his father. We found the DD-214, and I assisted the son in making funeral arrangements.
The son continued to look through the papers and was astounded at his father’s service.
“When I get my teaching degree I can share this with my classes,” he exclaimed. “This will really make history come alive for high school kids.”
We heard a contented sigh come from the bed as his father let go of his last breath.
Breaking the Code
Statistics from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) show more than 1,800 veterans die every day in the United States.
The initiative called “We Honor Veterans” and a website were created just for veterans, their families, and healthcare professionals who are coping with end-of-life issues (wehonorveterans.org).
Last January, LifePath Hospice in Hillsborough County, Florida, approached me to assist in a veterans’ initiative. The importance of this service was immediately evident. I started contacting local veterans organizations to elicit
support. The response was an unequivocal “yes.”
LifePath Hospice and other hospices around the country have a protocol for honoring veterans at the end of life. First, the newly admitted patients who have served in the armed forces are identified, and special services are offered. These services include:
- A pinning ceremony, which can be done at bedside
- Veteran volunteers to provide support to veterans who are dying
- Educating hospice staff on the special needs of veterans and their families at the end of life
The pinning ceremony is very meaningful. For some veterans it’s the first time they’ve been honored since leaving the service. This is particularly true of Vietnam vets.
The members of the hospice team come to the veteran’s residence and honor his or her service with a certificate and a pin with the U.S. flag and a flag of their branch of service.
Veteran volunteers undergo thorough training on hospice principles, which allows them to provide a supportive presence at the bedside and nonmedical comfort interventions.
The veteran volunteer has the ability to break the code of silence, because the volunteer has had similar experiences. The dying veterans and their families express deep gratitude for these visits.
For more information and a listing of hospices, visit wehonorveterans.org or nhpco.org.
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