Hospice patient Jack Clarke, 93, is wrapped up in a blanket with the United States Navy emblem on it, and is trying to keep his Jimmy Dean sandwich away from his goddaughter’s two small dogs, Bella and Gizmo.
On the table next to him is a glass of orange juice, a lamp, a few pills he’ll need to take when he finishes his sandwich, and a plaque recognizing him for his service in the United States Navy from 1942 to 1946.
“Back in those days, you didn’t have much choice,” he said with a smile (He added that he likely would have enlisted either way). “We got kamikazed one time, and the Japanese planes went over my head and my buddy’s head by maybe a foot.”
Veterans of any war have seen and experienced things the rest of us couldn’t imagine. When they near the end of their lives, it’s only fitting that they should receive veteran-centric treatment. Clarke, who is about a month-and-a-half into hospice care with Casa de la Luz, is in high spirits.
“They have been so good to me that I can’t believe it,” he said. “With the medicines and the wheelchairs and the bidet… I am just very happy with it all.”
We Honor Veterans, a national program that helps veterans identify organizations that supply veteran-specific care, recently recognized Casa de la Luz with a level four partnership designation—the highest level of recognition for services designed for veterans nearing the end of life.
Casa de la Luz serves more than 2,000 patients a year. From November 2016 to October 2017, Casa admitted 515 veteran patients. Census data from 2016 courtesy the Pima Council on Aging indicates that veterans in Pima County make up 22.6 percent of the population aged 60 and over, and 13.4 percent of the total population. With veterans making up such a significant portion of the community, and Casa de la Luz’s client base, the organization decided to create a specialized program.
Casa de la Luz volunteers go through a 30-hour training program over the course of five weeks, including an exercise in which they reflect on their own mortality to better understand the position of their clients. Volunteers who want to work specifically with veterans receive an additional four hours of training, in which they learn even more about key practices like how to express gratitude and acknowledgement for a client’s service and how to ask questions and listen respectfully. So far, 10 of the organization’s volunteers have opted to receive the additional training—five of whom are veterans themselves.
Volunteer Bruce Hallowell is a Marine veteran from the Vietnam War. He also has a longstanding interest in hospice care, and started volunteering with Casa when he heard it was the best hospice in town. He now emphatically agrees. He said he’s worked to overcome the guilt and shame he took on after feeling despised and vilified by the public. Now, he’s happy to help other veterans overcome their own struggles. In fact, he firmly believes he gets more out of volunteering than he puts in.
“Everyone just wants to be cared about and be recognized and acknowledged,” he said. “Some of these people are terribly lonely. Having a human connection and someone that values you and notices you in these moments is tremendously powerful.”
For veterans, there’s an especially potent power that comes from being recognized for their service. Clarke, who was an enlisted man, not an officer, said he didn’t receive a lot of fanfare when he was actually in the service. But when he wore his Navy WWII veteran camp on a trip to the hospital earlier this year, a line of people saluted him as he walked by.
“What a difference 50 years makes,” Clarke said.
Whether it’s 50 years or five days after their service, Meredith Ford, Casa de la Luz communications manager and co-chair of the Hospice Veteran Partnership of Southern Arizona, believes it’s never too late to recognize and thank a veteran. Casa de la Luz employees do this formally during veteran appreciation ceremonies, in which they present veterans like Clarke with blankets and plaques recognizing their service.
“This allows them to get that thank you that never came, or maybe that they never knew they wanted,” Ford said.
Hallowell often wears a badge from the VA identifying himself as a veteran, and has noticed that many veterans are more at ease in the presence of someone they can relate to.
“There they are at the end of our lives, and here people are saying, ‘You did something of value, and we want you to know that,’” Hallowell said. “That’s a big gesture, even though, in a manner of speaking, it’s a small thing.”
Hallowell said most of the veterans he works with wind up hanging their blankets up on the wall, but Clarke has put it to more practical use: The blanket keeps him warm and keep his legs safe from by Gizmo and Bella’s scratches.
As Clarke and his god-daughter discuss plans for his upcoming 94th birthday, he gathers the blanket around him and sums it all up.
“I’m happy to be here,” he said. “It’s really nice that we’re not forgotten.”
Emily Dieckman is a Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.