New ministry pairs veterans with hospice patients who have served
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
On Veteran’s Day, Catholic Community Hospice, a service of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, will again be honoring local veterans with recognition ceremonies.
But this year, as it recognizes veterans’ past service, the organization will be looking toward the future and its continuing efforts to improve end-of-life care designed specifically for veterans.
As part of its We Honor Veterans program, Catholic Community Hospice is recruiting veteran volunteers to be paired with hospice patients who have served our country in the military.
Serving those who served
Today, one in four dying Americans is a veteran. Most served in World War II and the Korean conflict, and the numbers of Vietnam veterans facing the end of life are increasing.
The We Honor Veterans program was developed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The four-level program calls for care and services sensitive to the specific needs of veterans.
Each level requires particular activities that help augment the quality of veteran services and increase outreach to veterans.
“And part of that involves education of the staff and volunteers,” explained Brent Doster, bereavement coordinator for Catholic Community Hospice. “And part of it involves changing the way we’ve done some things, such as identifying veterans in the admission process.”
Catholic Community Hospice has completed levels one and two of the program and has initiated the process of attaining a level-three status.
“We’ve got a committee of people that we meet with on a regular basis,” said volunteer coordinator Bonnie Krause. “We discuss how we’re going to achieve the next level — what we’re going to do to let the staff be aware of veterans, their benefits and how we can help them.”
Recently, Phil Majors, a Vietnam veteran who works for Catholic Charities, gave a presentation to the hospice staff.
“He talked about what a Vietnam veteran’s experience might have been like,” said Doster. “He explained some of the issues we might see, some of the ways we can better serve them and how we, as hospice practitioners, can help them at the end of life.”
Doster himself has visited local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and given presentations to help veterans understand how hospice could be a benefit to them and their families.
Catholic Community Hospice considers its Veteran-to-Veteran program the most important part of its mission to serve veterans.
“We’re currently reaching out to veterans who would be interested in being hospice volunteers and participating in the Veteran-to-Veteran program,” said Krause.
Because many veterans experienced difficult situations and even trauma during their time of service, stressful memories that have been buried for decades may resurface at the end of life.
“It’s important to find volunteers for those who are interested in maybe talking about those significant experiences they’ve had in the military as they go through that process of life review,” said Doster.
“They’re going to respect a volunteer that is a veteran,” added Krause. “And they’re going to open up a little more knowing that [the volunteer] has been there and done that.”
Bruno Finocchario is a Vietnam veteran and also has a background in clinical social work. When he retired three years ago, he became a hospice volunteer.
“I didn’t go to Vietnam,” he said. “But I was drafted during the Vietnam War and I served in a hospital [at Fort Leonard Wood] as a clinical social worker.”
Finocchario likes the concept of the Veteran-to-Veteran program and is one of its first volunteers.
“It’s an opportunity for individuals who have served to help their fellow man,” he said. “And the vets themselves will enjoy processing with someone who understands that very unique experience.
“People who have been involved in the military are more sensitive and understand the challenges and sacrifices that veterans have often made.
“I think people in uniform have good communication with each other.”
Prepared to serve
Catholic Community Hospice understands that just being a veteran doesn’t equip someone for this kind of experience.
Volunteer veterans are pre-screened by Krause to be sure they’re mentally ready to participate.
Then they fill out an application and go through training specifically for the veteran volunteers.
“[The veteran volunteers] may get somebody that’s a little intense,” said Krause. “And they may get somebody that has post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We have to educate our veteran volunteers so they know how to handle those situations.”
The training focuses on respectful inquiry, compassionate listening and grateful acknowledgment to comfort patients who have a history of military service.
Additionally, veteran-to-veteran volunteers go through the regular hospice volunteer training.
“I think one of the things we try to do is continue to reinforce what has been significant to a person in their lifetime,” said Doster. “And for some people that would be their time in their military service.
“We want to honor that specifically in the best way we can.”
Volunteers also understand that some veterans may prefer not to talk about their experiences.
“The Vietnam War was particularly nasty,” said Finocchario. “Veterans didn’t come back as heroes — they came back as people who perpetuated an unnecessary war.
“To this date, some of these guys that were in that war cannot talk about it.”
Volunteers always follow the patient’s lead.
“We always recognize the wishes of the individual,” said Finocchario. “We go wherever the patient wants to go — wherever they’re comfortable.”
Sometimes that takes a bit of creative thinking. Finocchario recalled a veteran he’d cared for who was suffering from dementia.
“He had a great like for the military and he was a sheriff in Lawrence,” he said. “He had commendations from President [Harry S] Truman for the military and [former FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover sent him a personal commendation for apprehending someone when he was sheriff.”
Finocchario was able to connect with the patient by paging through old issues of Life magazine.
“And so even though he did have dementia,” he said, “he connected. And that was a way of finding a bridge with that nice gentleman.”
Expect great things
It takes a special kind of person to be a hospice volunteer, but the rewards can be great.
“I always hear people say, ‘How can you do that? That’s so sad,’” said Krause. “So we’re trying to raise awareness that it’s not a sad thing.”
Finocchario said he’s enjoyed this volunteer experience much more than he thought he would.
“I look forward to meeting somebody new and trying to figure out a way to connect with that person,” he said. “Everybody is so different.
“What surprised me to some degree is how positive most of the patients are and strong and able to live for the moment . . . to see the good of today.”
“You do give to the patients and the focus is always on the patient,” he said. “But always there are these things volunteers do get in return.
“Often you’ll have a conversation that brings meaning and perspective and even hope to your own life.”
Finocchario recommends the experience to all his fellow veterans.
“If they’re looking for something meaningful that really makes a difference — if somebody wants to salute or share a veteran story,” he said, “you’ll leave them feeling like they’re a little more appreciated in this life and cared about by other people in uniform.
“I would say you’re going to get as much out of it as you give.
“Expect great things.”
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