Apr 20, 2023

Caring for senior veterans is an honour and a privilege

The medals and stripes that line the hallways of every Vasey RSL Care facility are a stark reminder of just how special every one of their guests is.

Amongst the sea of smiling elderly veterans and war widows, 98-year-old military nurse Betty Cooper has a penchant for standing out even when surrounded by esteemed company.

“Unfortunately, at my age, I’m seeing more and more [of my fellow veterans] go to the heavens, but I feel that God has blessed me, so I try and help everyone in the home,” Betty told HelloCare. 

Sitting alongside Betty, Vasey Lifestyle Coordinator Vicki Jarrett revealed that Betty’s proclivity for helping others is a trait shared by many in the tight-knit veteran community at their Brighton facility.

“The veteran community is a very special community, and just like Betty, they all try to help one another,” said Vicki.

“Betty served in World War 2. To have even been involved in the second world war in any capacity, you have to be aged somewhere in your mid-90s. They’re a very special little group, our World War 2 veterans,” she added.

As a former nurse, being on the receiving end of care does not sit comfortably with Betty.

However, years of nursing experience in unthinkable circumstances have provided a level of wisdom that Betty can not help but share with staff members at the home.

“No, sometimes the nurse comes in and asks me things about [residents] because some [residents] are difficult with how they behave. So, I just very tactfully try to help.”

Even now, at close to 100 years of age, a beaming smile and positive attitude fail to mask Betty’s leadership instincts or her sense of humour – qualities that have surely served her well throughout a lifetime of high adventure. 

Betty’s story

The Victorian seaside suburb of Sandringham became home to many Australian servicemen following the first World War, the impact of which had a profound impact on Betty, who was born at a local hospital in 1923.

After completing a St John’s aid course at the age of 16, Betty enlisted in the army as voluntary aid detachment (VAD) when news of the second World War broke. She was then sent to Melbourne’s outer west to train new female army recruits.

A young Betty Cooper in uniform.

“After 18 months in Darley training the women, I became a Sergeant,” shared Betty.

The arrival of new management prompted Betty to throw in her stripes and train as a nurse at the 2/78th Military Hospital in Heidelberg.

“I trained in surgical and skin diseases, and when I was 21, I enlisted to go to Lae in New Guinea,” said Betty. 

“And that is where her wartime story begins,” added Vicki.

The sand in New Guinea was black,” explained Betty.

As a part of the 2/7th Australian General Hospital Unit (AGHM), Betty and her comrades were promptly loaded into trucks and taken through the jungles of New Guinea before arriving at a tent hospital.

The tent hospital where Betty was stationed in Lae, New Guinea.

“We slept in thatched-roof huts, and some of the wards were in thatched huts. We weren’t allowed to work in the wards because there were Japanese prisoners, but we prepared the drugs and the food and took them to the guards,” said Betty.

But, I did work overnight on [the] night shift at the hospital helping the sisters with surgery.”

The huts where Betty and her fellow nurses would sleep.

After six months spent tending to wounded soldiers, Betty’s wartime story came to an abrupt end when she suffered a horrendous injury after diving into a shallow swimming pool.

“I didn’t remember anything for 10 days,” said Betty. 

“Then I was sent back to Australia on a plane called the Spirit of St. Louis where I sat on a fruit crate with wounded soldiers at my feet.”

Betty added, “When we got to Brisbane I collapsed on the airstrip and woke up in Goulburn Hospital. I was there for three months.”

Serving those who served

The magnitude of responsibility that comes with caring for veterans like Betty is always front and centre for Vicki and her colleagues. 

However, staff are also well aware that military service is only one aspect of a resident’s background that needs to be taken into account when delivering care.

“Our mission at Vasey is to serve those who served, and it is a real privilege to care for these people,” said Vicki. 

“So yes, we commemorate anything to do with any service that our veterans have been involved in at all, but generally speaking, a lot of veterans don’t dwell on it.”

The Lifestyle Coordinator added, “We go out for lunches, and we have a lot of activities here, but we just press on.”

Betty Cooper and Vicki Jarrett

Vicki’s sentiments were echoed by Betty who points to her love of family and the Richmond Football Club as the things that bring her the most joy.

I’ve had a lovely life,” Betty shared.

“I’ve got four children – two boys and two girls. I’ve got nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. I love them all. My children are marvellous to me.”

Betty cheering home her beloved Richmond Tigers.

Having led such an adventurous life, Betty had some initial reservations about transitioning to aged care, but daily interactions with amazing staff like Vicki allowed Betty to embrace her new home.

“When my husband died, I lived on my own. And then they said for me to come here because I couldn’t look after myself,” explained Betty. 

“I would recommend people go into aged care in a nice home like this and you’ll be well looked after.”

Betty continued, “I can’t eat certain things, but the chef looks after me and my food very well.

“We are lucky we’ve got a lovely bunch of carers and I love it when they come and talk to me.”

At 98 years of age, Betty has her sights set on reaching 100 and maintaining her own independence.

However, the prospect of living to 200 is not something that Betty would think of entertaining.

“No, I don’t want to get to 200,” said Betty.

“I want to join my husband one day. I miss my husband, and that’s the only thing that I find difficult, but he’s waiting for me in heaven.”

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