By Ruth Stein*
Older Americans may remember when November 11th wasn’t known as Veterans Day. The day reserved to recognize, reflect upon, and revere the achievements of our American heroes was originally named Armistice Day to honor the cessation of major World War I hostilities (at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918). It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
The new name rightly reflects that for so many of the men and women who have served our country, the war is never over. According to a Health Policy Brief from the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the veteran population is older and sicker than the general population. In 2011 the average veteran was between 60 and 64 years old, due to the larger size of the military force during the Korean War and Vietnam War eras. Chronic conditions and health problems are more common among veterans, and as they age their health declines more steeply.
For many older Veterans the physical wounds of war not only persist, but are also compounded by a host of other challenges that come with getting older. A recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry describes the findings of the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study looking at the prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam veterans. The article reports that an “important minority of Vietnam veterans are symptomatic [for PTSD] after four decades, with more than twice as many deteriorating as improving.” Meanwhile, “the stresses of aging, including retirement, chronic illness, declining social support, and cognitive changes” can “create difficulties with the management of unwanted memories” for PTSD-inflicted veterans.
Indeed, for the clients I serve as an attorney staffing the Older Veterans Legal Clinic at VA hospitals in New York City, cognitive decline can combine with health issues and psychological injuries to prevent them from effectively navigating social service systems, enforcing their legal rights, and accessing justice.
One client I met is Thomas, an 88-year-old disabled Korean War veteran who came to us facing eviction from his apartment. Thomas, whose income is below the poverty line, had previously been able to afford rent through a New York City senior citizen rent freeze program funded by landlord tax credits. Unfortunately, the freeze had lapsed when he failed to recertify, likely as a result of his disabilities. Meanwhile, these same age- and health-related challenges prevented him from solving, on his own, the legal problems they had caused. As a result, substantial advocacy—both in and out of housing court—was necessary to stop eviction proceedings and ensure the continued security of his home, including his rent freeze.
Stories like Thomas’ are a stark reminder that older veterans need attorneys on their side to succeed at their continuing struggles. If there is one thing to remember this Veterans Day, it may be that this is no time to lay down our “arms”—our oldest Veterans have not lived down the fight, and neither should we.
*Ruth Stein is an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), and staffs the Older Veterans Legal Clinics at the Bronx and Manhattan VA medical centers. She is part of NYLAG’s LegalHeath unit, which partners with medical professionals to address the nonmedical needs of low-income individuals with serious health problems.