VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System
‘Choose Home’ Keeps Senior Veterans Connected
As the COVID-19 pandemic response normalized physical separations, Choose Home, a nationally funded initiative for senior Veterans, guaranteed social connections. With vaccinations underway and restrictions easing, the Colorado Springs-based pilot program is ready to expand.
Air Force Veteran John Sullivan retired in Cripple Creek, a historic mining town on the western flank of Pikes Peak, where colorful aspen trees meet rolling meadows. But medical concerns motivated a move from the rural area.
Sullivan, 75, had settled with his wife in Colorado Springs, roughly an hour east, when pandemic restrictions hit their senior community. Public health officials warned everyone 65 and older with underlying medical conditions about an increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness. A statewide order in March 2020 said, “stay at home.”
“The Sullivans were left in their home but left in isolation,” said Robert Foutz, Veterans coordinator at Silver Key Senior Services, a nonprofit organization in Colorado Springs that assists seniors in quality of life issues.
VA partnered with AmeriCorps in 2019 to launch Choose Home, an initiative for senior Veterans who are at risk of moving into a nursing home or other institution. Volunteer companions, trained on Veteran-specific topics and concerns, would help them choose to stay in their homes while they receive health care.
In early 2020, Silver Key Senior Services was expanding several programs, including food pantries, calls of reassurance and rides to essential medical appointments. By April 2020, its home-delivered meals doubled. During a hectic pandemic response, Foutz, an Army Veteran who once piloted AH-64 Apache aircraft, ensured Choose Home got off the ground.
“It’s about Veterans helping Veterans,” says Foutz, summarizing the companionship initiative.
Air Force Veteran Jack Schoen was one of the first to finish Choose Home orientation in Colorado Springs, one of five pilot cities. Air Force Veteran Kathy Schoen had been volunteering at Silver Key Senior Services food pantries when she joined her husband in the pilot program.
Marge Sullivan, 74, had pulled a flier from her mailbox when she reached out. Foutz introduced the Schoens after identifying common interests and experiences. The initial phone call led to months of conversations.
“He looked forward to Jack’s phone calls,” said Marge Sullivan, reflecting on the past year from a picnic table at Bear Creek Park. “It gave him a chance to talk to somebody, kind of relive his military life, give him a purpose.”
“It’s been a really big help and a big boost to my morale,” said John Sullivan, recalling conversations about serving at Schriever Air Force Base, as well as England, Germany, Korea and Japan. The airmen had talked about generations of bases, aircraft, radars and satellites.
When patio visits were safe, the Schoens delivered groceries and comfort items. In October, they met for a picnic at Bear Creek Park. The Sullivans purchased a van modified for wheelchair use, and the Schoens got trained to operate it. On Christmas Eve, they toured neighborhoods animated with holiday lights. They drove through Cripple Creek.
“As much as it’s helped them out, it’s an honor to do it,” said Jack Schoen, sitting with the Sullivans at the park. The Schoens had just accepted their invitation to dinner the next day, as their first house guests since the pandemic.
“We feel like we get more out of it than they do,” said Jack Schoen. “To help other people is just gratifying.”
While coordinating a dozen companionships, Foutz said quality of life always improves. Senior Veterans who had shown imbalance, discomfort and uncertainty are asserting themselves and setting goals. A Veteran of World War II went fly fishing four times in Woodland Park. On his 94th birthday, his companion held a parade that passed by his home.
“The program was able to grow, and lives were able to be impacted, and quality of life was able to change, through the pandemic,” said Foutz, who set a goal to support 50 companionships by summer.
VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System geriatrics and extended care social workers commended Silver Key Senior Services in April for a successful implementation of the Choose Home initiative, one that honors self-determination and helps aging Veterans avoid institutions, so they may thrive in the least restrictive environment.
“It’s the perfect time to get involved,” said Foutz. “If you know a senior who is isolated, and is a Veteran who’d benefit from the program, we need you to reach out to them and let them know we’re here.”
“You are not forgotten; we are here for you.”
Any Veteran in a crisis, or anyone concerned about a Veteran, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), text 838255 or visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net.