Veterans Day 2019 has come and gone, but it’s never too late or too early to honor those who served our country in the armed forces. We recently came across an encouraging report in the New York Times (originally published on Veterans Day) about how the Veterans Administration is facing a growing onslaught of aging Vietnam veterans seeking hospice care and is – so far, anyway – managing to successfully meet the need. We share this story here on the AgingOptions blog not only as an encouragement but also to alert veterans and their families about a VA service you may not have known about.
VA Hospice Care “Feels Like Family,” One Surviving Spouse Reports
You’ll find the article, written by reporter Julie Halpert, here. She begins with the story of a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran, disabled by wartime exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange. When he learned he was near the end of his life, “he knew where he wanted to die,” Halpert writes. “[He] spent his last 10 days in hospice care at the community living center of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan. The staff provided him with a roomy suite. A social worker wheeled in a bed for his wife of 44 years, and gave her pajamas so she could be comfortable spending every night with him. ‘The VA became family to us,’ [his wife] said.” As the New York Times reports, on his first day in hospice, this ailing veteran was honored by a roomful of fellow vets who gathered in his room, pinned an American flag on his clothing, and thanked him for his service to the USA.
According to the Times, some 28,000 veterans spent their final days in a VA hospice care program during this past year. “The Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospice program for this population is designed to specifically address the complexities they face as memories of the traumas of war surface – in many cases, for the first time,” and it “provides a unique way of honoring their dignity at the end of their lives.” The VA takes a multidisciplinary approach to hospice care, involving physicians, nurses, social workers and spiritual leaders. “Veterans tend to be more chronically ill compared to the general population, with high rates of disability, intricate psychiatric issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression,” the article states. In the words of doctor who directs the VA facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, “When you have complex needs, you really need the whole team.”
VA Hospice Care Meets the “Profound” Needs of Vietnam Vets
For veterans of Vietnam, these issues are especially profound, Halpert writes. “Unlike their predecessors from World War II who were welcomed home as heroes, Vietnam veterans ‘were often spit on in the streets,’” said Dr. Scott Shreve, director of the VA’s hospice and palliative care services. Many believe this experience caused a large number of Vietnam vets to steer clear of the Veterans Administration and to remain “wary of receiving help from the government.” The VA has also received bipartisan criticism for making vets wait a long time to receive medical services, causing some to avoid VA hospice care for fear of receiving the same poor treatment. However, the VA is “holding up the hospice program as a point of pride,” says the New York Times: “The department’s policy requires that hospice services be provided without delay to enrolled veterans who seek them. ‘VA senior leadership has made it clear there is to be no wait list for these services,’ Dr. Shreve said.”
The challenge of meeting this need to provide hospice care without delay will only increase. By 2030, according to the article, approximately half a million veterans will pass away each year, a high percentage of them vets of Vietnam. “It’s a whole new framework for us in hospice care to be prepared for, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said the VA’s Dr. Shreve.
VA Hospice Care Meets a Growing Need, Yet Services Remain “Underutilized”
As the New York Times report explains, anyone on Medicare can receive hospice care once their life expectancy drops below six months. “But for veterans to receive the services through the VA, they have to register, something only a third of the 22 million veterans in the United States have done.” There are 170 VA hospitals that currently offer hospice care, and more than 1,000 VA-run outpatient facilities can refer vets and their families for care. Veterans may also be eligible for a broad array of benefits that Medicare doesn’t offer, such as compensation for funeral costs and a pension for survivors. In spite of this, VA officials believe their hospice and palliative care services are underutilized. One official said, “There’s a misconception about hospice that it means giving up.” There’s also a reluctance among many vets to ask for help.
For these reasons, the VA and other cooperating groups are increasing their efforts to inform vets and their families and to “normalize the process” of seeking care. One encouraging example is this program called We Honor Veterans, a partnership between the Veterans Administration and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. The website calls this “a pioneering program focused on respectful inquiry, compassionate listening and grateful acknowledgment. By recognizing the unique needs of America’s veterans and their families, community providers, in partnership with VA staff, will learn how to accompany and guide them through their life stories toward a more peaceful ending.” It offers a wide range of resources to help hospitals, hospice providers, and others give appropriate end of life care to veterans.
Resources for Veterans – and a New Approach to Retirement Planning
There’s a lot more to this article, and if you are a veteran or have an aging vet in your family, we encourage you to visit the New York Times online and check it out. The article includes several very helpful links to online services, such as:
- The website where vets can request a copy of their DD214 proof of service;
- The VA website where vets can determine eligibility for health care including hospice services;
- This helpful worksheet describing what families should look for in choosing a hospice care provider.
Wherever you are on your journey toward retirement, Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions wants to help you plan for a brighter and more secure future. At his highly popular LifePlanning Seminars, Rajiv shows future retirees and their families how to protect assets, avoid becoming a burden to loved ones, and escape the trap of being forced into unplanned institutional care. Why not invest just a few hours and attend one of these free events? It will open your eyes to a new approach to retirement planning. Visit our AgingOptions Live Events page and sign up for the date and time of your choice, in a location that works for you. We’ll see you soon!
(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)