Veterans Are in Need of More Hospice
Ask many young Americans if someone in their immediate family has served in the military, and the answer is probably no. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military in these days.
However, if you ask if one of their grandfathers served, the answer is likely yes. Between the second World War and Vietnam, millions of men were drafted into service.
The generation of veterans is aging, and the demand for hospice care has been growing as well. That means that the Department of Veterans Affairs is spending more of its money on end-of-life care.
“I think they call it end-of-life care,” says Thomas O’Neil, a 68-year-old resident at the St. Albans VA hospital in Queens, N.Y. “But whatever it is they treat you like gold. If you’re going to be sick, this is the place to be.”
Mr. O’Neil served for one year in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1967, at a time when that conflict was killing more Americans per year than the total U.S. casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
“The only good thing was the nighttime, because you knew another day closer to coming home,” Mr. O’Neil says. “To be honest, I was scared. I was scared the whole year — and I wasn’t the only one.”
When Thomas O’Neil came home, he didn’t talk to anyone about his experience with the war. O’Neil says he came close to drinking himself into the grave. In 2011, he came to the VA to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder he’d been enduring for 40 years. Last year, he learned that he has terminal cancer.
“They can tell you you got three months. They don’t know,” he says. “I came to terms with this. I’m not happy, but I came to terms with it.”
Coming to terms with the end of your life can be a bit different for some veterans, says Dr. Alice Beal, who runs the VA palliative care for most of NYC.
“If a veteran’s seen combat, he’s likely to have killed,” Beal relates. “I think no matter what belief is, when you meet your maker, it’s just a burden the rest of us haven’t even considered.”
Sometimes that means veterans need to tell their stories at the end of life, Beal says. Sometimes the stories come unhidden.
“If you’ve had blood on your hands, it comes up,” Beal says. “People who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder all of a suddenly they get flashbacks.”
Beal says the goal in hospice is to help make life as good as it can possibly be for as long as possible; that usually means relieving pain for the last weeks or months of life.
All VA facilities have a palliative care team, but actually only a fraction of veterans enter VA hospice. The vast majority prefer to stay in their communities and near family instead.