Enriching Life At Camp Hill

September 22, 2008 by Sharon Adams

It is a spring day typical of coastal cities like Halifax: the sunny sky invites people outside to play—and a brisk, chilly wind quickly chases them back inside. But that doesn’t stop a few stalwarts from donning sweaters and jackets and slapping on hats to enjoy Camp Hill Veterans’ Memorial Garden.

The breeze rustling new leaves on the trees, the splash of water in the stone and metal poppy fountain, the smell of sun-warmed earth and the sight of cheery tulips just make you feel glad to be alive, a fact not lost on the residents of Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building.

“In any institution some people feel somewhat cloistered,” says resident Dr. Howard Parker, who served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during 1943-46 before returning to Canada and a prestigious career that included stints with the World Health Organization and the faculty of Dalhousie Medical School. Camp Hill’s garden “contributes a great deal to people’s well-being. Generally speaking if a person is in a good frame of mind, it helps a great deal in everything from metabolism to the ambition to get going. It helps people enjoy life better.”

These days this tranquil space is where residents go to relax and reconnect
with nature, to entertain, to plant and weed and be part of life. Nine years ago it was just another parking lot.

“This project was years in the making,” says Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command Zone 14 Commander Tom Waters, adding the Legion, one of many donors, contributed about $45,000 towards construction of the gardens.

Waters is one of many Royal Canadian Legion members from provincial command and individual branches enthusiastic in their on-going effort to ensure the veterans residence is a comfortable home—and that those who call it home remain part of the community.

“You can come in here on any day and see a Legion person walking around the building,” says Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command President David Blanchard. They come to visit friends and branch members, to volunteer in Camp Hill programs, to drop off magazines, to pick up veterans who need rides to appointments. They’re part of the warp and woof of the tapestry of life at Camp Hill, says Veterans Services Director Elsie Rolls.

Camp Hill is home to about 175 veterans ranging in age from their late 70s to a shade over 100. Residents come from all walks of life, and during service their ranks ranged from private and seaman right up to general and admiral. Care is taken to ensure it feels like home, not a hospital, says Rolls.

Most rooms are private, though veterans do often share a bathroom. There’s an exercise room on each floor and quarters set aside for visitors. And there’s plenty of space to socialize—a residents’ lounge with pet rabbits, the private, park-like gardens, a pub with regular hours, an outdoor terrace.

Camp Hill has a long and historic past, taking its name from a military camp dating to 1757 when 1,200 soldiers decamped there for Louisbourg. In 1775 British troops trained there as reinforcements to fight the American Revolution. But it was during the First World War that Camp Hill Hospital began serving Canada’s war veterans. The first military cases were admitted in September 1917. On Dec. 6, 1917, more than 1,200 civilians injured in the Halifax Explosion were treated here. An ammunition ship was struck by another ship, caught fire and exploded, levelling much of the city. More than 1,500 people were killed and 5,000 were wounded.

After the First World War, Camp Hill offered rehabilitation and vocational training to veterans. In 1923 a Vetcraft Industries shop opened to sell handicrafts made by disabled veterans, and in 1925 long-term care began for older patients.

In 1939, the hospital again filled to capacity caring for war casualties. Between 1945 and 1948 old buildings were replaced and new accommodations built to serve veterans of the Second World War; by 1950, 130 veterans were living there. In 1987, the $32-million Camp Hill Veterans Memorial Building was officially opened. Dr. Harris Miller, a member of Courcelette Branch in Sheet Harbour, chaired the opening ceremonies and the centre’s steering committee. And the Legion is still there.

For residents, a Legion visit “enriches their lives,” says Rolls. “If you’re living in total boredom, guess what? Your desire to live becomes very diminished.” Providing social interaction and a pleasant environment both contribute to veterans’ health. Residents’ average age is 87, and more than 80 per cent are affected by dementia, says Rolls. This will be the last home for many; and for decades Legionnaires have been here offering companionship to the end.

A quick tour reveals Legion involvement in a number of projects. The Legion designed and commissioned the $25,000 cenotaph on the grounds, provides information about service and honours for veterans’ memorial stones on the Walk of Honour in the gardens, and helped raise $178,000 for a bus capable of transporting wheelchairs.

Recently the Legion donated nearly $28,000 for new dining room chairs. “We’d screwed the old ones together so many times, some of the screws were bigger than the legs,” jokes Rolls, who was surprised by how quickly the Legion responded. “It only took a month or so” to raise the money once local branches were contacted, says Blanchard.

“This summer we’ll be updating all seven dining rooms,” says Blanchard, “and we’ll have plaques made up so branches will be given credit.” Rolls was surprised by the generosity. “I thought they would take on one dining room,” she said. “But they meant all seven.”

Local branches are quick to respond when veterans express a need. “If I’m looking for a television and call one of the branches,” says Waters, “the next day the TV’s here.” When the garden committee said a potting bench was needed so veterans could take part in planting, Fairview Branch had one made.

Aside from therapy and medical treatment, there is plenty of social activity for residents. There’s something going on practically every day of the month, spanning hymn sings and choral and musical performances; meetings of the Veterans’ Council and Garden Committee; regular bingo evenings and coffee talk, outings for bowling, shopping and visiting Legion branches.

Parker and his new bride, Sarah Solley-Parker, fresh back from their honeymoon, are quick to commend the Legion for all it does for residents—sponsoring concerts, dinners, commemorations, entertainment. “They cook in the summer,” says Solley-Parker, “barbecuing for outdoor garden parties for vets and relatives. They’ve raised quite enormous sums of money that are applied to projects on behalf of the vets. I think they do a very good job and I can’t say enough about it.”

Although Parker is a permanent resident in Camp Hill, he spends some nights in the couple’s apartment where Solley-Parker lives, and is often asked to speak in the community because of his professional associations. Other veterans rely upon Legion outings for a change of scenery, says Waters.

“I love meeting people,” says Thomas Bassett, a two-year resident, when he joins his pals in the pub, which has a view over a terrace to the gardens below. He served with the Princess Louise Fusiliers at the outset of the Second World War and ended service in 1950 as a member of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. The sparkle in his eyes says how much he’s enjoyed a recent trip to Uniacke Branch in Mount Uniacke, about a 40-minute drive away. “I had a few beers and had supper,” he says. “But I don’t dance!”

“The theme for this year’s visit was Sunny Days,” says Linda Oakley, who helped plan the veterans’ annual outing to Uniacke Branch for the past nine years. The branch’s downstairs banquet hall was done up with bright smiley faces and yellow decorations. The veterans arrive by Callow Coach, named for long-time Camp Hill resident Walter Callow, invalided in the First World War, who designed the wheelchair friendly buses still in use today.

The fun begins the minute the veterans come through the door. “We give them candies and treats, and this year gave them a stuffed animal.” Then the entertainment starts. “A local band plays and the ladies dance with them,” even those in wheelchairs, says Oakley.

Each year the veterans pick the menu—beef stew this year, fish cakes and beans last. They like to choose food a little different from the Camp Hill dining hall menu.

“The Legion is pretty good to us,” says Gordon McLauglin who served in Korea and has been a Camp Hill resident for about a year. “All we do is call them.”

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