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Utahns use creative messages to uplift veterans experiencing isolation in nursing homes

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VA Salt Lake City Health Care System workers workers drew colorful chalk art across the sidewalks around the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake City Veterans Home.

VA Salt Lake City Health Care System

SALT LAKE CITY — With Memorial Day on the horizon, Utahns are finding creative ways to connect with veterans experiencing isolation imposed by coronavirus — an effort undertaken by state leaders, schoolchildren and public figures alike.

“The biggest thing that we want to accomplish is remind veterans that they are not alone, that we will all get through this as a state,” said Kelsey Price, director of communications and marketing for the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.

Isolation — it’s a feeling experienced by many as nursing homes across the country have shuttered their doors to protect residents from the pandemic.

Recognizing this, the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs launched an initiative May 11 to help a subset of the nursing home population — residents of state-run veterans homes who have been separated from all but essential medical workers since March 12, according to Price.

The decision to close the four state-run veteran home facilities to all visitors was based on federal and state health guidelines, however, doing so has greatly impacted “veterans’ social life” and “ability to feel connected to the community,” Price said.

The initiative, titled Happiness for Heroes, was brought about to counter this.

“Regardless of our age, our families, what we do for work, we’ve all gone through a really challenging time mentally,” Price said. “Especially when you are looking at our residents — they are the most likely to be at high risk, they are the most likely to be isolated and lonely.”

Initiative organizers are asking the community to send messages expressing support for the 400 plus residents living in these veteran homes.

Price said there’s been an outpouring of community support. She’s received submissions ranging from children’s art and recorded musical performances to video messages from Gov. Gary Herbert and other congressional members like Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee. Former Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey also participated.

Herbert lauded veterans living in the homes for their military service and their ongoing sacrifices as the coronavirus keeps them separated from their families.

“I know that times are tough but we will endure this challenge together. I’m grateful for the sacrifices and contributions that you and your families have made, whether on the battlefield or right now as you navigate these unprecedented times,” he said in a video message.

Price said organizers are uploading videos online and will play them on TVs throughout the facilities. The homes’ recreation directors are sharing email messages and carefully disinfected physical mail with veterans directly.

Response has been positive so far, particularly with Memorial Day weekend approaching as the messages give the veterans something to look forward to despite many of the traditional ceremonies being canceled, according to Price.

“Memorial Day is obviously a big holiday within the veterans’ space. It’s a time for us to pay tribute and honor those who we lost in battle and didn’t come home,” she explained. “This has really shifted the tone of the holiday, so it’s really giving them something to look forward to this weekend in lieu of the traditional Memorial Day ceremonies.”

Joe McKillop, a 93-year-old World War II Navy veteran and resident at the Southern Utah Veterans Home, said he was able to hear some of the messages Tuesday — an experience he described as “really good.”

“Everybody is trying to get things straightened out. We want it to get straightened out, but we don’t want the virus to get worse,” he said. “The main thing is to get a cure for the virus.”

McKillop said aspects of the past couple of months have been quite challenging, like being confined to his room, always wearing a face mask when he does go outside his door, and he misses going out to dinner with his friends, but he still feels lucky for the opportunities the home provides.

“I get up every morning and do what I have to do. I’ve got no choice in the matter. It’s like I say, I’ve got to do what I have to do,” he said. “I have a roof over my head and three meals a day, doctors, nurses here 24/7 so everything is taken care of.”

Submissions are ongoing and there is no formal deadline. Price said she expects the initiative to carry on as long as homes are closed, which she anticipates will be “awhile” based on state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

More information about how to submit messages can be found on the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs website.

Price said the coronavirus pandemic has presented “an opportunity” for the homes to get creative in how they interact with their veterans to combat subsequent adverse feelings like isolation.

The April 30 flyover carried out by the Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing jets was specifically planned so they would streak directly over the four state veteran homes, Price said.

Residents were allowed outside, physically distanced from one another and accompanied by their assigned health care professional, as the jets roared like thunder overhead — a stark contrast against the sunshine-filled skies.

Price said some of the veterans were able to video chat with their families during the flyover and overall it was a “really meaningful” experience.

Organizers also planned a virtual concert on Tuesday, May 26, for the veteran homes put on by Navy Band Northwest as part of the Happiness for Heroes initiative.

Organizers also started window visits last week which allow families to schedule a time to meet their loved one living in the veteran home. Despite the pane of glass between them, the veteran and their family can have a conversation over the phone while looking at one another — engagement that really does “make a big difference,” according to Price.

“Our veterans are a tough group. We have veterans that are over 100 on down. They’ve been through a lot. We are just trying to make this new challenge a little bit easier for them to bear and go through,” Price said.