When you think of hearing aids, canes, knee pain, memory issues, and heart problems, you might envision a grandparent or elderly person. But these indicators of aging may also describe a military veteran in their late 30s or early 40s who served on numerous deployments, worked on a flight line, or parachuted from aircraft for a living.
While new military inductees are typically some of the healthiest people in our society, many find themselves anything but healthy by the time they end their careers. In fact, many find themselves coping with an accelerated aging process that combines natural aging with the service-related wear and tear on their bodies and minds.
There has always been a national interest in ensuring that veterans receive retirement benefits for serving their country. What hasn’t been emphasized are the specific challenges veterans face as they age.
A 2019 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that Persian Gulf War veterans suffered chronic conditions — such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, stroke, and arthritis — about 10 years sooner than non-veterans the same age. This results in lower quality of life, higher mortality rates, and shorter life expectancies, especially for women veterans.
Compared to the overall population, veterans are more likely to be male, older, retired, widowed, educated, and living in the South, according to a report prepared by the LTSS Center in Boston. They also are more likely to report fair or poor health, limitations with activities of daily living, obesity, depression, and chronic conditions. This is despite the fact that there are not stark differences in financial wealth, and veterans pay less out-of-pocket for health care than civilians.
This raises the question: What is the best way to serve aging veterans who report a higher number of health and daily living issues during a greater portion of their lives than civilians?
To answer this, American Veterans (AMVETS) and the National Council on Aging (NCOA) are partnering to understand the specific needs of the nation’s 12.4 million veterans aged 65-plus and ensure that those who served have as fair a shot at aging well as those they defended. The partnership builds on two successful efforts: AMVETS’s HEAL Program and NCOA’s Aging Mastery Program® (AMP).
HEAL — which stands for healthcare, evaluation, advocacy, and legislation — encompasses all necessary steps to intervene directly on behalf of veterans, service members, families, and caregivers to reduce veteran unemployment, homelessness, and hopelessness, particularly for those who are at the highest risk of suicide. The suicide rate among middle-aged and older veterans remains high, with approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died by suicide being aged 50-plus. Currently, the program has assisted over 600 veterans and families in crisis, with zero suicides following intervention, primarily by coordinating access to care and assisting with VA benefits.
AMP helps older adults build their own playbook for aging well. Nearly 25,000 people have taken part either through classes in their community or by using the at-home Aging Mastery Starter Kit. Participants in AMP classes have achieved meaningful, measurable, and enduring changes in their health, finances, life enrichment, and advance care planning. The classes also serve as a gateway to encourage and lead older adults to participate in other community offerings.
An understanding of the aging process — both as a matter of acceleration among younger veterans and ways to make aging more of a comfort than a hardship — is essential to promoting good quality of life for those who served. The AMVETS and NCOA partnership will promote timely access to care and benefits for veterans with unique needs, along with customizable programs that support positive aging.
In addition to active support with obtaining VA benefits, veterans will have access to educational materials through Aging Mastery Starter Kits if they don’t live near an in-person class, are physically or socially isolated, or are caregivers. And with accredited representation and support from AMVETS, AMP will add a session on helping veterans coordinate their veterans benefits with Medicare.
From the time we’re born, we are educated and trained for the next phase of life. There is elementary school, high school, college, and military training. But there is no boot camp for aging. Veterans’ needs are unique, and the AMVETS-NCOA partnership provides a model for helping them age well.
Sherman Gillums Jr., chief advocacy officer, AMVETS, and Andrew Greene, managing director, Aging Mastery Program, National Council on Aging.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.