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Honoring Veterans, Young and Old

Next week is our annual celebration of the American men and women who served in foreign wars, so now is the time to consider how we honor our veterans.

If you’ve been in eldercare for a while, then you’re probably quite familiar with Veterans’ Day celebrations. In today’s newsletter, I’ll share two ways to honor veterans, one for helping veterans share their stories, and one of which was one of the most meaningful ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

Share Stories

Wartime experiences certainly impact service members, but every service member is affected differently. I got these tips from the Hospice Foundation of America on how to help vets share their stories:

  1. Always ask about military experience. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. Be sure to ask, “did you ever serve in the military?” rather than, “are you a veteran?” Some people might not consider themselves veterans if, for example, they don’t use VA health services or if they don’t have a service-connected disability. The first question is more precise.
  2. Ask, “did you serve a dangerous duty assignment?” rather than, “did you serve in combat?” Those questions may seem interchangeable, but it is possible to serve in a combat zone at very little risk of harm just as it is possible to be in danger and suffer trauma in a non-combat job.
  3. Leave space and time for the veteran to share his/her story. There is no substitute for a warm, open and caring relationship.

I’ll add one more to this list: use the creative arts. When words are not adequate, the arts can offer an outlet for expressing and feeling those emotions that are not easy to share. The tears that come at the sound of “Taps?” That can represent release at a deep level. Make space for those moments, too.

Celebrate with Ceremony

Speaking of meaningful moments, if I can boil down the most meaningful Veterans’ Day ceremonies I’ve ever seen to one tip, it is this:

Bring current members of the military and veterans together.

One of the hospices I served did just this very thing last year. My husband happens to be a veteran himself, and he currently works on an Army base as a civilian. Last year, he recruited several soldiers to attend two ceremonies at two different senior living communities. These soldiers put together a short, formal presentation to honor the veterans. In their dress uniforms, carrying themselves with strong military bearing, they marched to each veteran, presenting him or her with a hat and a certificate and giving a salute. We hospice folks did some other stuff, too – music and whatnot – but that presentation of honors was the emotional core of the ceremony.

Afterwards, “the young dudes and the old dudes” (as one soldier put it) shared some cake and spent a few minutes chatting with each other. The conversation was awkward at first, with the several decades’ gap in age between the young soldiers and their elder veterans, but they found commonalities that, as service members, only they could share.

This year, after one email and about three hours, my husband had to cap the number of volunteers at ten. They couldn’t wait to do it again.

I believe that the most valuable part of this experience was giving young and old service members the opportunity to reconnect with the larger purpose of the service to which they gave years of their lives and to share the experiences that are unique to military service, especially when it involves dangerous duties in theater. How can you make this happen for the veterans you serve?

  • Find active duty and reserve service members. Start by calling someone you know who is connected to the military, and they can help you find the right person to talk to. (I do not recommend calling up the operator at the nearest base. They will likely have no idea what to do with your call.) Members of the military take honor and ceremony very seriously. Offer the opportunity to honor veterans in a short ceremony, and you might just get some volunteers.
  • Connect veterans with each other. Recruit volunteers to have one-on-one conversations with the veterans you serve. Sponsor a veterans’ group on a regular basis. Arrange transportation to help veterans get to the VFW or to community Veterans’ Day ceremonies. These connections can help veterans deal with the emotional stresses from wartime that may bubble up again later in life.

What have been your most successful ways to celebrate and honor veterans? Please leave a comment below!

7 comments… add one
  • I really enjoyed this post, wish there were more ways to have the community come into my mom’s assisted living home. I dont have the time, I already do all of the practical stuff for her. I am ill myself now.

    • Kathy,

      I believe it’s the assisted living community’s responsibility to bring in folks from the larger community. You shouldn’t have to do that! You could certainly communicate your interest to the staff, though. That might provide the encouragement they need to seek volunteer support.

  • Dear Rachelle,
    The ceremony connecting old and young vets sounds so moving. It’s a wonderful tribute. I wish you and your husband well as you repeat the ceremony this Monday.
    Best,
    Carolyn

  • Rachelle,

    Sensitive tips–what a beautiful story about bring active duty folks and veterans together. I appreciated the subtle tweaks you suggested to our common questions about military service. I could tell that you’d had some inside feedback!

    Warmly,
    Ann

  • Ceremonies can be nice. Thanks for sharing this idea. I have also seen some wonderful conversation starter ideas this last week. One of the assisted living facilities had photos in individual frames with notes about the military service of each individual. It encouraged residents, staff and visitors to engage in conversation and recognition.

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