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Planning for Getting Older: Is it Ever Too Early?

A woman with a stethoscope reviews a paper with an older man holding a cane

Over half of America's Veterans are over 65. It's estimated 70% of them will eventually need long term care.

By Sheri Reder, PhD and Taryn Oestreich, MPH, MCHES
Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why Plan for Getting Older?

It’s so easy to get comfortable with the “I’m going to live forever” mentality. But the reality is that we all get older. We can’t predict the future. But we may be able to influence future decisions. The VA can help – with Shared Decision Making and Advance Care Planning.

Many of us work hard to protect our money – how we spend it, where we keep it and who will get anything that’s left over after we die.

But a lot more Americans, including Veterans, leave many other issues related to getting older and elder care to chance. They don’t realize that 70 percent of us will need long-term care at some point. Most say they want to stay in their own home, but fail to plan for changes that will make “aging in place” much easier. They stop focusing on wellness habits, even though research shows that staying active, eating healthy, and sleeping well makes a difference.

A Veteran’s Story – It Was Time

So, what can you do? Consider Vietnam Veteran Larry Smith’s story. Larry lives in Salem, Ore. and often travels to the Portland VA Medical Center to receive care for his diabetes, vascular degeneration, neuropathy and a few other ailments. He chooses to focus on living and not on his illnesses.

“I know the day could come when I cannot make decisions for myself.”

Nonetheless, he knew it was time to make plans for the future. “I went to the VA’s website,, to check out my options.” Larry feels better knowing what his options are for long-term services and supports. “Nobody is ever ready to deal with this stuff, but the doctors have told me what I’ll likely have to deal with. I know the VA can provide palliative care, which is what I want to help deal with my symptoms and whatever it can do for my quality of life.”

He’s not particularly close to his family. “I know the day could come when I cannot make decisions for myself. I chose a close friend, Paige, who is about 15 years younger than I am to be my health care agent. I talked over my wishes with her and filled out paperwork I downloaded from the Internet that took about 20 minutes to complete. I’m confident that she’ll advocate for me, if needed.”

Know Your Options

More than half our nation’s Veterans are over age 65. Many Veterans do not know about all of their options, if or when the time comes. VA’s website for elder Veterans and their family caregivers details home and community based services, residential settings and nursing homes and provides valuable Worksheets for Veterans and family members to guide them in the process of making shared decisions with their VA health care providers and social workers. It also has helpful sections on paying for long term care and well-being.

Shared Decision Making and Advance Care Planning Can Help

The goal of shared decision making is for you to get the services and supports that best meet your long term care needs and preferences. You can use more than one service at a time. And you can change the mix of services and supports you receive as your needs and preferences change.

Advance care planning is the process where you identify your values and wishes for your health care at a future time if you are no longer capable of making choices for yourself. Part of the process is filling out a VA advance directive, a legal form that helps your loved ones and doctors understand your wishes about medical and mental health care.

VA’s one-stop website for aging Veterans provides a Values Worksheet to help you get started as well as resources for talking with family members and your health care provider.

We all get older – it’s never too early to plan.