Honoring veterans at end of life
by Terre Mirsch
Armed Forces Day, a time to pay special tribute to all individuals of the Armed Forces, is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of May. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, quickly follows as an annual federal holiday celebrated in the United States on the last Monday of May. Often regarded as the unofficial start of summer or a long weekend of sun, fun, and barbeques, it is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. This day, where the flag is flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon and then raised to the top of the staff until sunset, honors present veterans and provides opportunity for remembrance of our deceased veterans who through service and self-sacrifice preserve our freedom. It also provides opportunity to support the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in defense of this freedom.
What does this have to do with hospice or caring for someone with advanced illness?
One in four Americans who are dying now is a veteran of our nation’s armed forces. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 1600 veterans die each day. More veterans will die this year than did during all four years of World War II. Today’s 23.8 million living veterans may have served in World War II, the Korean War,Cold War,Vietnam War, Gulf War, Peace Time, or in the Afghanistan/Iraq War or other era.
A veteran’s military experience can alter their end of life experience. Which war the veteran served in, the branch of the military they served and rank, whether enlisted or drafted, whether the veteran served in combat or in a non-combat role, and POW experience may have a significant influence on their death. They may have a service-related disease, illness, or condition that changes their feelings about their military experience. The veteran may find their military experiences and relationships to be a source of strength and comfort, or it may have left them with physical or mental wounds or post traumatic stress symptoms that reemerge at end of life.
What can I do as a caregiver of a veteran who is facing end of life?
- Understand your loved one’s experience in the military and how they view their service. While many Veterans take great pride in their service and the difference they made in the world, not all see their service as a positive one that made a difference.
- Ask about their legacy and invite your loved one to share stories about their experience, as they desire. Those who want to share their story give you with the opportunity to learn about important moments in history first hand while also serving as a listening ear.
- Allow your loved one to mourn the brothers and sisters that were lost during war. Holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day offer a chance to do this in a formal manner. While difficult memories and losses may be uncovered, this can be an important aspect of grief and reconciliation.
- Learn about the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospice benefit and other VA benefits that may be of assistance. It is expected that Hospice and palliative care services be available in every VA facility nationwide.
- Talk with your professional team of caregivers about your loved one’s military experience. A military culture of stoicism might prevent your loved one from talking about pain or taking pain medications. Others may experience increased anxiety or agitation as a result of emerging memories or post traumatic stress disorder. Understanding the root of these symptoms will help the team to treat them appropriately.
This Memorial Day take time to remember our fallen Veterans, support those that lost family or loved ones who sacrificed their life for service to their country, and honor those in our midst. Understanding the impact of military service on your loved one and veteran may help you to gain deeper insights and compassion throughout the journey of caring for someone with advanced illness.