Learn how to provide appropriate and sensitive care to a veteran who is nearing the end of life.
Today’s “mini-episode” airs on Memorial Day in the U.S. – a day when we honor those who have given their lives in military service to our country. I share a few thoughts about how to give the best care possible to those who have served as they reach the end of their lives.
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On this Memorial Day we honor all those who died serving our country as members of the military. Today I am honoring all veterans for their sacrifices and service as we discuss how to give them the best possible end-of-life care.
The Veterans Administration estimates that 11-30% of all veterans experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma during their military service. PTSD symptoms can be triggered when a veteran faces the challenges of aging and death, even in those who have not experienced PTSD flare-ups for many years.
The symptoms of PTSD to be aware of if you are caring for a veteran include:
- Flashbacks and vivid recollections of the traumatic event
- Sensitivity to certain sounds or sights
- Sleep difficulties
- Anger outbursts
- Avoidance of situations that trigger memories
If you are caring for a veteran, whether you are a professional or family caregiver, it is important to understand the needs of your patient so you can offer appropriate care. Here are some tips:
- Recognize that the veteran may be reluctant to complain of pain or distress because military training emphasizes stoicism and bravery. Talking about pain or fear may seem to be a sign of weakness to the veteran.
- Watch for signs of uncontrolled pain (grimacing, muscle tension, elevated heart rate or blood pressure) even if the veteran denies discomfort.
- Normalize the experience of pain by emphasizing that other patients with the same diagnosis often have pain and receive treatment for it.
- Create a safe emotional space where the veteran’s wishes can be heard and respected without judgment.
- Ask open-ended questions and show a willingness to listen, even to difficult stories, but don’t push the veteran to talk if he or she is reluctant.
- Avoid startling the patient with an unexpected touch – always ask permission before reaching for a hand.
- Acknowledge that you cannot possibly know what the veteran has experienced unless you yourself have been in military service. Show your gratitude for the sacrifices made.
- Remember that the veteran may be carrying a burden of unresolved grief and guilt over the traumatic events of the past but may be concerned that no one else can tolerate listening to the stories that need to be told. Offer reassurance that you have heard many stories in the past and are trained to listen.
- Enlist the help of a chaplain if the veteran is seeking forgiveness and interested in receiving pastoral care.
- Consider bringing in a Veteran Volunteer if the patient is willing and one is available. A fellow vet will have an easier time establishing rapport and connecting with the patient. Check out The Twilight Brigade, which provides volunteers nationwide to be at the bedside of dying Veterans and “is one of the largest end-of-life care communities operating as an independent agency within VA hospitals and hospice care facilities across America.”
Heartfelt thanks to all veterans who have served to protect our freedom and safety! May your road be smooth and burdens light as you journey on at the end of life!
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Until next week: