The more than 800 Veterans who participated in the National Veterans Golden Age Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico soaked in the thrill of competing with and against their fellow Veterans. Former service members are anxious to experience that opportunity as soon as they sign up for the popular sports and recreational event.
But the ability to compete isn’t the only redeeming benefit. Taking part in the Golden Age Games can also improve a Veteran’s physical condition and mental state of mind. In fact, the event is designed to enhance the quality of life for Veterans ages 55 and older, including those with a wide range of disabilities.
“The major benefit here is an improvement in quality of life because the Veterans have the camaraderie and support of other Vets,” says Carla Ruff, director of the National Veterans Golden Age Games. “That camaraderie and support is similar to what they had in their military days. The event also gets them off the couch, so they’re moving and doing things rather than just sitting in the house.”
Ruff is part of VA’s Office of National Veteran Sports Programs and Special Events. She says the Golden Age Games ease the aging process, too, because the Veterans are involved in activities that can help them lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and improve their cardio. Most of the participants are ages 60 to 69.
In hopes of improving quality of life, the Veterans also can take part in whole health sessions, a key component of the Golden Age Games. There are sessions on yoga movement; mindfulness and breathing; aromatherapy, the therapeutic use or application of essential oils to enhance emotional, psychological, and physical wellness; vocational rehabilitation, which helps people with cognitive and emotional impairments or health disabilities to access, maintain, or return to work; proactive health and well-being; and proper fitness nutrition.
These sessions provide an introduction to VA’s Whole Health for Life program, which is part of a new approach to how VA is delivering health care. The program focuses on empowering and equipping Veterans to take control of their health care. VA’s Whole Health System, which moves VA from focusing on episodic care to a more continuous engagement with the Veteran during his or her life, is being implemented this year at 18 VA facilities.
Three representatives from the VHA Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation—Richard Cherry, Mary Gallagher-Seaman, and Tim Calvert—attended the Golden Age Games overseeing the whole health sessions.
“Under the new whole health model, the Veterans are responsible for their health, instead of expecting the doctor to fix it,” Calvert says. “Let’s look at you as a whole person, instead of just focusing on what’s wrong with your elbow.”
A psychologist at the New Mexico VA Health Care System, Dr. Jessica Madrigal-Bauguss, led one of the whole health sessions at the Golden Age Games on mindfulness and breathing. Mindfulness is the mental process of bringing one’s attention through meditation and other training to real-time experiences.
Madrigal-Bauguss required the participants to do three exercises: to put a raisin or a piece of chocolate in their mouth to gain a sense for how their mind is reacting to it; to wander around the room for a few minutes to take in their thoughts at the time; and to breathe with their eyes closed and head down.
“You may notice the sensation in your nose and muscles as you pull the air in,” she said during the breathing segment. “You may notice temperature differences in the inhale to the exhale. You may even notice the sound of your breath. Notice if your mind starts to wander. Notice if your mind tries to help you by getting busy.”
Army Veteran Bob Surdel took part in the mindfulness and breathing session.
“The class helped me to slow down, to focus on the present, and to realize that there are lots of thoughts that enter your mind at the same time,” he says. “I also came to appreciate that what you’re doing in the moment is key, and that there are types of movement you can do like walking that other people can’t do.”
Marine Veteran John Taylor says the whole health sessions are a “wonderful” element of the Golden Age Games. He participated in the yoga classes.
“They adequately take care of the Veterans here,” Taylor says. “The benefits are available for the Veterans who want them. If they want the help, they can get it here.”