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The Globe and Mail

Veterans at Sunnybrook show us how to age gracefully

Murray Westgate is one of more than 500 veterans living at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe's months-long series on the challenges facing Canadian hospitals. All of our published material has been reported with permission from staff.

Fields of tiny Canadian flags were planted like poppies in the grounds surrounding the veterans' wing of Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre on Remembrance Day. Each one represented a donation to a fund to enrich the lives of the more than 500 veterans, half of them with dementia, who call Sunnybrook home. At an average age of 91, most were too frail to march to the cenotaph, so the wreath-laying ceremonies were held inside, in Warrior's Hall.

"We will remember, we will remember YOU," promised one of the speakers before tenor John McDermott yanked heart strings with Danny Boy. What finished me off was watching men, who weren't even old enough to vote when they went overseas, struggle out of their wheelchairs so they could stand for the national anthem and the wobbly playing of the Last Post.

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One of them was Murray Westgate, 95, a Navy vet who sailed on convoy duty in the North Atlantic and then entertained a generation of Canadians on Hockey Night in Canada back when you could count the number of teams on your fingers. Before discount gas and self-service pumps, Westgate was the genial, trustworthy face of Esso, the guy who could keep your car humming and who signed off every week with a smile. A bit of a loner, a bit of a rebel, he doesn't know what happened to his medals or his uniform, so he wheeled himself into the back of Warrior's Hall wearing a polo shirt, a windbreaker and a poppy.

For most of the past decade, the retired actor has lived at Sunnybrook, and as far as he is concerned, he will be leaving "feet first." And why not? With money from Veterans Affairs Canada, Sunnybrook offers art, music, photography and companionship, proximity to an acute-care hospital, and an innovative model for treating dementia patients with aggressive behaviours.

A couple of weeks later, I spotted Westgate wheeling into a concert in a sunny reception room as a three-piece combo swung into Let Me Call You Sweetheart. There were fewer veterans than on Remembrance Day, but I could see aged heads nodding in time to the music and visitors sharing low-sugar cookies with grizzled parents and grandparents.

Like most people, I want to delude myself that I will age "gracefully" in my own home surrounded by loving family and friends. If that is not to be, I'd like to be in a place like this. Maybe the veterans have a final gift for us: an example of how to care for the elderly.

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