Despite COVID-19 obstacles, hospices still working to honor veterans at end of life

Posted at 1:25 PM, Nov 09, 2021

(WXYZ) — Our past experiences can influence how we approach end of life, and in our final moments, it’s specialized, compassionate care that can really make a difference.

"When you look at people who are end of life right now in America, one out of every four people who's in the process of dying is a veteran, that is twenty five percent of our people," said Angela Greene.

Greene is an advisor with Hospice of Michigan, the organization is just one of the nearly 3,000 hospice partners involved in the national We Honor Veterans program.

"While we care for every person in our community who comes to us, the veterans always come with a very unique circumstance around them, and it varies according to their journey," said Greene.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization launched the program more than a decade ago. It helps veterans understand benefits they may be entitled to, acting as a megaphone for Veterans Affairs, and honors them for their service.

"Everyone has a loved one or a family member who has served, you know, veterans affect anyone ... no matter who you are and what side of the aisle that you're on, we need to make sure that our veterans are getting the best care possible and getting everything that they have access to," said Katherine Kemp, director of Veterans Services at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Under the program, there are veterans, like Bob Tiefenbach who also volunteer their time to help with pinning ceremonies, or just be there to lend an ear to a veteran who is nearing the end of their life.

"I met some World War II veterans that actually lost friends during the war, and I meet a lot of soldiers. There are a lot of veterans with Purple Hearts and I have such respect for that," he said.

Greene added that Hospice of Michigan has a wide variety of veteran volunteers with various experiences, which helps them connect with others.

"You see the look on this veteran's face and it can be ... up to now, they've really been struggling. They have something to say, but they don't have the right person in front of them to say it to ... and all of a sudden, you see just relief come over them," she said.

The conversation is important – but so is an understanding about what a veteran may have gone through.

"Bringing them an awareness to things to look out for, for example, maybe putting balloons in someone's room isn't a good idea because loud noises can surprise them," said Kemp. "We want to make sure that our partners are equipped to meet any particular mental health needs that may come out at the end of life. A lot of times survivor's guilt is really prevalent, but it's also about not assuming that someone that did serve in Vietnam is suffering from PTSD. That's another big piece of it."

And despite the many challenges hospices are facing in the COVID-19 pandemic, there remains a commitment to this country's veterans.

"Hospices are dealing with a lot right now. They're dealing with staff shortages, they're overworked, aside from everything else that's coming along with the pandemic. And, you know, going above and beyond to serve their veteran patients would have been a really easy no, but we got a resounding yes from numerous state hospice organizations," said Kemp.

If local veterans are interested in volunteering for this program, there are many ways to help, and Greene with Hospice of Michigan says you can choose to be as active as your schedule allows. Find out more at Hospice of Michigan's website here.

"There is little more work involved in their end of life journey, a little more support needed, and to have that opportunity to be matched with someone who can meet you where you're truly at, that's a beautiful gift to give somebody," said Greene.

To find out which local hospice organizations are participating in the We Honor Veterans program, click here for the partner directory.