Meeting the Unique End-of-Life Needs of Veterans in our Community

In 2021, Hospice & Community Care social worker, Jaclyn Berrios, asked one of her patients, who was a Vietnam War Veteran, if there was anything he wanted or needed. He expressed a desire to wear a hat worn by Vietnam War Veterans. Hospice volunteer coordinator, Carol Vanden Berg, put out this request to volunteers and they immediately sprang into action to locate a hat. This task was not as simple as first imagined, but volunteers Bill and Deb Daley and Jack Spinelli were relentless in their pursuit to ensure that this Veteran received his hat. In record time, several Vietnam Veteran hats were secured and one was delivered to the patient. “He was beaming ear to ear with his hat on,” shared Kevin Darlington, LPN, Hospice & Community Care and a U.S. Navy Veteran. “He told us stories of his military service and promptly and proudly wore the hat until he died.”

“We live in the land of the free because of what Veterans have done for us,” shared Kevin. “At boot camp soldiers are told to rely on the person next to them for their life. While I never saw war during my time in the Navy, many of our Veteran patients have. These men and women experienced combat and sacrificed so much for our country. It is an honor to care for these patients at the end of their lives.”

One out of every four dying Americans is a Veteran, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). Veterans may have experiences from their military service that present unique needs at the end of life, and may require specific interventions. Their needs may be influenced by combat or non-combat experiences, the war or period of service, branch of service or rank, and if they enlisted as a volunteer or were drafted. Veteran patients often have chronic illness related to conflict, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Agent Orange, sleep disorders, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, substance abuse, depression and anxiety. There is also an increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for Gulf War Veterans.

Hospice & Community Care staff and volunteers are specially trained to care for Veteran patients and their families; approximately 20% of the organization’s patients are Veterans. Hospice recognizes the unique end-of-life needs of Veterans in our community and educates staff and volunteers to commemorate a Veteran’s history and be cognizant of the emotional, spiritual and physical associations that accompany serving our country. “For example, end of life can be a PTSD activator,” shared Kevin. “If I am caring for a patient with PTSD I may need to avoid using the bed arms, tucking in the patient’s sheets or touching the patient without warning. Another example, I often find that my Veteran patients are not honest with me about their pain level because it will show a sign of weakness. These are just some of the factors that I need to take into consideration when caring for each patient.”

Hospice & Community Care is a proud partner of We Honor Veterans, a pioneering program of NHPCO in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The organization has achieved Level Five status, the highest attainable level recognizing the implementation of specialized training and programs focused on respectful inquiry, compassionate listening and grateful acknowledgement of the Veterans in our care.

“Veterans, especially those in war time, have been through the ringer,” shared Kevin. “I had a patient who was a POW in Vietnam for a year. He was very closed off and did not want to talk. I was made aware of his past military service prior to caring for him. Over time, through the use of humor, we created a bond and he started opening up, telling me stories that his family had never heard. I love talking to Veteran patients. They are living, breathing history books.”

Hospice & Community Care pairs volunteers and staff who are Veterans like Kevin, with Veteran Hospice patients, in its Veteran-to-Veteran initiative as part of We Honor Veterans. These volunteers and staff members have the unique ability to relate and connect with each patient, creating an environment open to healing and life review. Hospice & Community Care also holds special pinning ceremonies, presenting military pins, service certificates and flags to recognize and thank Veterans for their service.

“I remember my first Veteran pinning ceremony like it was yesterday,” shared Kevin. “I was caring for one of our patients at a senior living facility in York County. The patient was completely unresponsive and had been that way for as long as I had been caring for him. A volunteer from our Veteran-to-Veteran program entered the room and asked if he might offer a pinning ceremony for the patient. Intrigued, I watched how the volunteer delivered the entire ceremony without any response from our patient; that was until the end. At the conclusion of the ceremony, our volunteer, a Colonel in the United States Army, saluted the patient. Without hesitation, the patient saluted back. It was such a powerful experience and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

If you are interested in becoming a Veteran-to-Veteran volunteer or know a Veteran who could benefit from Hospice & Community Care’s specialized care for Veterans, please call us at (717) 295-3900.