Caring for Veterans
Michael was a Vietnam veteran and all alone. His parents had died many years before. He and his brother were estranged. His struggles with PTSD, alcohol and drugs landed him on the streets of Denver.
In his early sixties, Michael was picked up by the police for his aberrant behavior. During his 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization he was diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s Disease. The courts assigned him a guardian to protect his interests and placed him in a nursing facility where he stayed until his death two years later.
During the intake process, Michael's only request was that he “not die alone.”
As Michael’s health worsened, he was placed in hospice care. The hospice team recognized that Michael would need special care because of his persistent agitation, as well as his difficulty in speaking. Janelle was assigned as his hospice volunteer. She had trained with the Twilight Brigade to provide eleventh-hour care for veterans.
Her assignment was to honor his only request, “to not die alone.”
During Janelle’s visits, she got to know Michael in part by questioning the staff. She discovered that Michael loved Pepsi, Snickers and Honky-tonk music. She spoke to Michael’s guardian and learned that he was the sole survivor of an enemy ambush. His entire platoon was killed while he was lying on the ground coaxing a young duck to come to him. It was because of this that Michael only felt safe sleeping on a mattress directly on the floor.
It took time for Janelle to build a relationship with Michael. He was often agitated and would yell profanities or swing an arm at her. But she continued to bring him his favorite treats and play Honky-tonk music on her cell phone. As Michael warmed to her presence, Janelle developed a ritual touch on Michael’s forehead and cheek. Michael would then visibly relax and often fall asleep.
One Saturday evening, the nursing staff alerted Janelle that Michael was transitioning and would probably die in a couple of days. Janelle began her vigil at Michael’s side, talking softly and playing music. She repeatedly told him, “You no longer have to be the sole survivor. You can let go now.”
Michael languished between this world and the next still agitated and lashing out. Day after day Janelle sat by his side. She searched for ways to reach him through both music and reading from his Bible that she had found in a nightstand with his few personal belongings.
On the seventh day of their vigil she played Johnny Cash singing Willie Nelson’s “Crazy Old Soldier.”
I've lived to the limit maybe a little bit more.
There are so many stories of how I got out of control.
Some say it's a woman; some say it's my troubled soul.
I'm like a crazy old solider fightin’ a war on my own.
Just me and the whiskey and the bottles are ten thousand strong.
You'd think I'd give up as many times as I've been hit.
But like a crazy old soldier, I just don't know when to quit.
Michael’s agitation and fight to hang on finally subsided.
He died peacefully, and as requested, he was not alone.
Holding on to regrets can sap our energy and weaken our ability to build our resilience to face new challenges
5 Tips for Creating a Veteran’s Caregiver Plan
Caring for a veteran can be overwhelming, especially if you are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), suicide ideation, or behavioral issues. Having a plan can make caregiving more manageable by minimizing unexpected problems, locating financial resources, and taking advantage of the support available for yourself.
1. Start the conversation: It’s essential to have financial and care-related discussions to understand their needs and wishes. Even with cognitive issues, involve your loved one as much as possible. If you note reluctance, start with smaller topics. Ask a military service member or professional counselor to help you navigate the conversation if needed.
2. Build a team: Cast a wide net for support from family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Use local and national resources. Include everyone from the start. This will help keep the peace with everyone involved.
3. Create a plan: Map out upcoming needs, what actions will take place as they arise, and what resources will be utilized. Prepare relevant documents such that you have the authority to make decisions when needed. Refer to the Military Caregiving Guide in the resource section below for checklists and how to create a detailed plan.
4. Gather professional support: Many organizations focus on supporting veteran caregivers locally and nationally. Support groups, counseling, and tips to manage caregiving challenges are available. Work with your loved one’s VA case manager to help determine needs, find resources, and help arrange care.
5. Practice Self-care: Because caring for veterans is uniquely challenging, a holistic approach is a priority. Eat well and exercise. Stay connected to others. Utilize respite care when you are overly stressed. Check if you qualify for caregiver stipends to help with finances. Practice the Water Ritual or other ceremonies to help create an inner sense of peace and to let go of any regrets during the times you feel you weren’t at your best.