“I started out in Southern France and ended up in Belgium," is how Palmer Gaetano describes his army service in World War II. The 92-year old lives in a hospice facility in Spencerport, near his daughter and her family.
Gaetano is one of more than 9 million American military veterans over the age of 65, according to 2013 census bureau figures. With an aging population that includes vets from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, there are 1,800 veteran deaths each day. One program strived to meet their increased need for end-of-life care.
Remembering a recent private ceremony held in his honor, Gaetano proudly points to an American flag quilt and pin, and two plaques hanging on the walls. We Honor Veterans presented each of these items to him shortly after he entered hospice in late 2014. “It was quite a day for me,” he says.
We Honor Veterans began in 2010 as a partnership between the Veterans Administration and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The program connects terminally ill vets with end of life services, including financial help covering some of their physical and mental health needs. It now enlists more than 3,500 hospice and community partners nationwide.
“Veterans often have some special needs at end of life that make them unique,” says Jacqueline Coates, nurse practitioner for Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester—the We Honor Veterans partner that oversees Gaetano’s care.
The VA estimates 85 percent of veterans don’t receive medical care through their health system and most vets are not dying at VA facilities. Coates says nurses and volunteers with We Honor Veterans are specially trained to understand these patients.
“Often in our older population of veterans have PTSD that was never truly diagnosed and we start to see symptoms and presentations that may be suggestive of a history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So, we also train our staff to recognize these symptoms and how we deal with them and help the family through this difficult time,” Coates explains.
Sometimes, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder lies dormant and symptoms, such as nightmares and agitation, only begin to show when a person gets dementia. Coates says her program looks to ease these symptoms and give patients peace in their final days.
Gaetano’s Nurse, Marcia Chiaponne says after many years of being ignored, veterans are delighted to have their service acknowledged, “Some of them you talk to them about that and they open up and they tell you wonderful stories. Because they're so proud of what they’ve done and to be recognized finally they just open up like a rose blossoming you know. It's kind of neat.”
Gaetano sits in a recliner with the quilt in his lap, his plaques are displayed proudly on the wall, and he wears a smile on his face. For the elderly vet, it was the recognition ceremony that most surprised him. “I never expected it. It was a wonderful feeling. It was a good experience. It’s a good way to end my life.”