Movie star Mae West once remarked that, “Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart.” And while the intention was humor, her wry observation rings true with most of us. Though the average life span of individuals living in the United States has dipped slightly since the pandemic, medical and technological advances give many the gift of more quality years of life.
What happens, though, when the natural effects of aging or life circumstances mean we can no longer safely live alone? According to the Centers for Disease Control, just shy of 42 percent of baby boomers were also caring for an aging parent in 2020. Since none of us wants to be a burden to our families, more people are considering alternatives for those “golden years” than ever before.
After a series of delays, including the COVID-19 lockdown and multiple obstacles and supply shortages, the Ardie R. Copas State Veterans' Nursing Home finally opened its doors in July. The home is named for Army Spc. 4 Ardie R. Copas, whose selfless service during the Vietnam war helped save the lives of four of his fellow soldiers even though his courageous actions cost him his own life. When the doors of the long-awaited home opened, the first veteran to walk through the doors was Port St. Lucie resident Calvin Heathman.
Heathman is a member of The Greatest Generation. At 95, the celebrated World War II Navy and Army veteran has proudly served his country, raised a family and worked a lifetime to provide for his family and contribute to both his community and society through service and volunteerism.
After visiting the area on a vacation in the mid ’70s, the Indiana native and his wife, Judy, decided that this would be a good place to purchase a home and retire in the sunshine. In 1978, they moved to Florida.
When his beloved Judy passed a decade ago, Heathman continued to stay in the family home, which he says was blessedly near to his daughter, Rhonda Blakey, and her family. But when he learned that there would be a new veterans nursing home constructed nearby, Heathman started thinking that the timing was perfect to make another transition.
“I wasn’t getting any younger,” he says, “and the housing market was at its peak. I realized it was not good to be living alone, and I didn’t want to become a worry to my family.”
Heathman applied to become a resident, filling out an extensive and comprehensive application, which he says covered his military and life history. He was grateful for the delay in the facility’s opening because it gave him two years to make up his mind and get used to the idea of living with others and giving up a good chunk of his independence in exchange for the care and safety the nursing home would provide.
Moving day for Heathman was July 5, just after Independence Day — an ironic coincidence not lost on the sharp-witted Heathman.
“As I walked in with my walker,” he says, “it was like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; everyone was lined up along the corridor to welcome and applaud me. It was a big surprise and very emotional.”
His daughter, who had experienced some trepidation with her dad’s decision, despite knowing in her heart that it was the right decision, echoed her father’s feelings about those first moments in his new home.
“I was OK with him moving because it was his idea and he was OK with it,” Blakey says. “It had gotten to a point where we both knew he might need a little extra help. When I saw all the nurses and staff lined up to welcome him, clapping, I nearly lost it. It was just a really emotional moment for us and bittersweet because I knew I didn’t have to worry so much, but knowing that he would not be returning to the house my parents lived in was poignant.”
Since becoming the first resident in July, Heathman has been joined by several other veterans at the center. “Each home has 20 beds, and we can house a maximum of 120 veterans here,” Heathman says. “My room is bigger than a hospital room and smaller than a house, but the facility itself is really amazing and beautiful. It’s massive and doesn’t look at all like a nursing home. It has a bit of a hotel feel, with wood floors and lots of space for me to entertain family and friends.”
Heathman says the facility has lots of extras, too, including libraries in each wing, a pool table and virtual reality area, designed to help aid with relaxation and to benefit those with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. “They provide three meals a day,” Heathman says, adding with a laugh, “and they are getting better at it.”
“Having passed our two recent surveys, we are now VA-contracted and Medicare/Medicaid-approved. We will continue to grow the census as long as we have staff to provide care and services,” says administrator Donna Rogers.
Heathman says all branches of service but the Air Force are represented at the home so far. As a veteran of both the Army and the Navy, Heathman says he does his best to represent. The center is ramping up to house the maximum number of veterans, but is taking its time to ensure quality care and service. And though he is one of the senior veterans in residence, Heathman says many of the younger veterans face far more substantial health challenges than he. A special wing for dementia patients is slated to open soon.
“Most of the guys don’t communicate well,” Blakey says. “There are three or four Dad can really communicate with. But Dad, an accomplished artist, does a painting for every veteran who comes in based on their specific branch of service.”
She says this personal touch and special gift of love from another veteran is met with much gratitude from new residents and their families.
Heathman says the staff is wonderful and feels like an extended family, and he was touched when they created a special studio area where he could comfortably paint. He is particularly happy with the level of care and kindness exhibited by the home’s director, Rogers, who, he says, sets the tone for the outstanding service that everyone else provides. Since arriving, Heathman has created a special piece of artwork to celebrate each passing holiday, which staff reproduces as flyers and shares with all the residents and department heads as part of the normal communications through the home.
“I can’t think of a downside to living here,” Heathman says. “The upside is the camaraderie and the outstanding service.”
Though most of the rooms include a roommate, Heathman says the wall between the sleeping areas provides privacy and comfort. And though he is a full-time resident and enjoys engaging in the activities and special events provided for residents, Heathman says going out into the community for shopping, visiting, and any appointments is as simple as letting the staff know he wants to go somewhere. Because his daughter lives nearby, he also joins her and her family for dinners out and special outings, too.
After serving his country and living a life of integrity and service, Heathman says it’s good to be home at the nursing center where he says he feels safe and that the staff members truly care for his happiness and well-being.
“I would absolutely recommend the place because I feel at home there,” says Heathman.
He is confident that his decision has not only benefited him but put his daughter’s mind at ease, too, and at any age, there is little that makes a loving father happier than pleasing his family.
Jan. 11, 2023