In the late 1960s, the Army trained Don Kenyon for the artillery, a skill he was never called upon to use. But his military service prepared him for something else later in life — hospice volunteer.
At least one local organization wants more just like him.
Since military veterans make up a significant percentage of the clients it serves, The Hospice of Baton Rouge is recruiting veterans to spend time with them. This is one aspect of the organization’s involvement with We Honor Veterans, a program that focuses on end-of-life care for those who once wore their country’s uniform.
“The ‘We Honor Veterans’ program just ensures that veterans die with dignity,” said Evelyn Ramirez, volunteer coordinator with The Hospice of Baton Rouge. “So, our goal is to have veterans volunteer with veterans to be, like, ‘It’s OK. I’m here for you,’ to bond over that, because it is a brotherhood or sisterhood. We really want to make sure that when our veterans are in the last stages, that they are completely at peace and comfortable.”
The program includes a ceremony honoring the veteran with a pin in appreciation of his or her military service.
The bigger role for the volunteer, however, is to maintain contact with the hospice client, to offer friendship and a listening ear.
Kenyon, 72, who has been a hospice volunteer for more than 10 years, said many veterans are reluctant to talk much about their service, especially to those with no military background.
“It’s like a lot of things. If you have something in common with somebody, you might feel more comfortable talking about those things with them,” Kenyon said. “They always ask me, ‘Were you in the service?’ and I explain what I did in the service. That just establishes almost an immediate rapport.
“I always view my job as more listening than talking. I’ll ask them about their service and what they did, experiences they had, and some of them will talk at pretty great length about it. Others, not so much.”
Although he is only required to visit clients monthly, Kenyon prefers to sign up for only one veteran at a time and visit weekly. Often, he said, veterans will start sharing funny stories about their time in the military, and that may or may not shift to more poignant stories.
“I try to encourage them to talk about anything,” he said. “We’re sitting here facing end-of-life issues. To give a person an opportunity to say the things they haven’t said up to that point or have had difficulty saying, I think that’s of real value.”
To volunteer, call The Hospice of Baton Rouge, (225) 767-4673.