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Expert Tips for Talking with Older Veterans about Military Experiences

Episode #033


You may be surprised to hear that about half of today's veterans are 65 and older. 


So I wanted to share some tips for talking with your aging parents about their military service. If you're caring for an aging veteran, you may have many questions, but don't know where to start. Or once you do start, you might not actually know how to have a conversation about your loved one's military service. This video will offer tips on how to talk with aging veterans about their military service.


I'm Dr. Regina Koepp. I'm a board certified clinical psychologist and I specialize with older adults and family. I created the psychology of aging podcast to answer some of the most common questions I get about aging, questions about mental health and wellness, changes in the brain like with dementia, relationships and sex, caregiving, and even end of life. Like I say in my therapy groups, no topic is off topic, we just have to have a healthy way of talking about it. So if you're an older adult, or caring for one, you're in the right place. Let's get started.


Chances are, if you're caring for an aging parent, somebody who's over 65 who served in the military, their service was influenced by World War II, the Korean War, or even the Vietnam War. Offering the opportunity for your aging parents to share about their military experiences in a healthy, loving, and nonjudgmental space is so important.


Let me tell you why. It helps to challenge the stigma of having served in war. And my personal belief is that these conversations help to more equally distribute the heavy burden of war and military service from the shoulders of soldiers to the larger body of society. These conversations help to chip away at the shame plaguing many veterans and maybe just maybe can help them move one step closer to finding a sense of inner peace. 


So when you do have this conversation, and I hope that it does happen, here are...

6 Tips that can help you talk with your aging parent about their military service. 


Tip #1: Create a space to talk, but don't force it. 

Let your parent know that all aspects of their life are important- The positive and the painful. And ask if they'd be willing to share about their military experiences with you.


The space should be private. Don't expect this conversation to happen in public. I mean, military experiences can be really emotional and with anything emotional, people don't want to be in public and be vulnerable. So consider sharing a meal together and allowing the conversation to happen naturally. Or do an activity together like walk or hike or work on a puzzle together and then ask if they'd be willing to share, but don't force it. Say you do extend the invitation to talk and your parent says no directly like, "Oh hell no, I am not sharing this with you or anybody else for that matter." Or indirectly. Like they simply change the subject. Don't force it. Respect your parents' boundaries and drop it for now. 


Tip #2: Let your parent tell their own story. 

If your aging parent is open to talking about military experiences, allow them to tell their own story and at their own pace. It's pretty common when people are talking about complicated things that they jump around or say things that are confusing or mix up the timeline. Be open and let them talk. 


Often when people are talking about something emotional and painful, it can take time to get to the point. Give your parent the space and grace to ground themselves in the midst of what it might have been a very chaotic time in their life. 


Your parent probably won't say everything in the first conversation, and that's okay. Veterans who've experienced war or other traumas often want to protect their loved ones from the atrocities that they witnessed or were a part of. So if you have a sense that your parent is holding back, really respect that this is their boundary and really it shouldn't be pushed. It might take some time, maybe a few conversations for your parent to get out what they want to say.And they might not ever say it at all. This is your parent's story to tell and in their own way, really respect that. 


Tip #3:  Be an active listener. 

This is your parents' opportunity to give and your opportunity to receive. As your parent shares experiences and memories, you may feel compelled to jump in, ask lots of questions and clarify things. Being an active listener takes practice and is incredibly powerful in helping to build trust and connection. 


I'm gonna give you some DO's and DON'Ts about how to be an active listener, especially in this conversation. This is really important so please pay attention. 

DO do be patient. 

DON’T interrupt. 


DO paraphrase on occasion, like, let me see if I have this right. Then give a little summary.

DON’T jump ahead and make assumptions. 


DO give little prompts like "then, what happened" or "what happened next?" Or "How was that for you? What was that like?" 

DON’T ask “why” Questions like, "why did you do that?"


DO reflect meaningful and emotional points. Like, "wow, this must have been so hard for you." Or "what a complicated time in your life"; "How incredibly painful." Don't be an expert over your parents' experience. 

DON’T say things like, "you should have done [that other thing] instead", or "you should have done [this] when you got out of the military, things would've been so different". 


DO be open and curious. 

DON’T dig and pry. 


DO be empathic. Like "this must have been so hard for you"; "You endured so much loss and it's such a young age"; "This sounds like it was so incredibly overwhelming." 

DON’T say things like "this happens so long ago. You should be over it by now." 


DO be appreciative: "Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with me" or "I feel so much closer to you knowing more about your life". 

DON’T end the conversation without acknowledging your parent and how meaningful what they shared was. 


Tip #4: Harmonize with the sadness and the strength. 

In other words, be empathic. Being empathic will help to reinforce the security of the bond between you and your parent and it will help your parent find comfort in the midst of what might be a really painful and scary conversation. 


This is especially true for Vietnam era veterans who returned home from Vietnam only to be ridiculed and scorned, not to mention countless stories of African-American Vietnam war veterans who have struggled to reconcile this really cruel irony of fighting for human rights only to return to the U S to return home and be denied the very rights that they were sacrificing their own lives for. 


As you can imagine, a war is filled with unimaginable atrocities. Casualties of war are quantified not only in human life, but human psyche and soul. Veterans who served in the Vietnam war, as with other wars, at risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That's also PTSD. They're at risk for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance use, relationship problems, estrangement from family. And the list goes on. 


This of course, affected us the next generation. And that's why it's essential that if your parents shares their experiences with you, that you meet your parent with empathy. This small gesture can begin, inch by inch, to heal the unimaginable wounds deep inside, many Veterans. Equally important is to acknowledge the incredible strength and resilience that it takes to carry on in the midst of crisis and chaos and the courage it takes to talk about deep pain and emotional turmoil, even 45, 65, or 75 years later. 


Tip #5: Manage your own feelings as they come up. 

Some of the things your parent shares might be really hard to hear. You might be surprised to find yourself feeling anger, fear, disgust, sadness, confusion, whatever feelings come up for you. It's important to acknowledge these feelings and manage them. Don't allow your reactions to overshadow your parent's' experience. 


If you do want to share a thought or a feeling of your own, please, please, please, use "I" statements. One healthy way to manage and process these feelings is to talk with someone you trust about what came up for you after this conversation is over. It will also help to remember that as hard as it may be to hear some of your parent's experiences, these experiences were much harder to have lived through. 


Tip #6: Accept your parent. 

If your parent takes the risk to open up to you, please meet them with love and acceptance. It's an incredibly vulnerable thing for a veteran to share their military experiences, especially if they're related to combat or other traumatic events.


I mean, military culture is really well known for being rigid and punitive and shaming, especially when it comes to being vulnerable. As a result, Veterans might second guess themselves when talking about even the most minor military experience. Not to mention something deeply painful. With all of the criticism and judgment that veterans have faced, especially Vietnam era veterans giving your parent love and acceptance will help to validate their experience. It will also help to build trust between you and help to heal some of the very deep wounds inside of them. 


BONUS TIP: Help your parent get help or support

Here's one final but really super important tip. If you're worried that your veteran parent may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, may be experiencing depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance use conditions or disorders, relationship problems, or any other mental health condition, please help your parent get enrolled at their local Veterans Health Administration medical center like a VA and request mental health services.


I'm gonna also share a crisis line for Veterans and I want you to know that your veteran parents can call this crisis line. Your parent doesn't even have to be enrolled in the VA to call. You can reach the Veteran's Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 (then press 1).


In wrapping up, I wanted to take a moment to give a very special thank you to all of the Veterans and their families who make the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. Thank you Veterans and thank you family members. 


Subscribe & Leave a Review

 If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe and leave a review. Subscriptions and reviews help people to find this show. And just a reminder that the information shared in this episode is for educational purposes only, and does not take the place of licensed medical or mental health care. Special thanks to Jhazzmyn Joiner, the psychology of aging podcast intern. I'll see you next week, same time, same place. Bye for now.


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