WEEKI WACHEE — Wearing a mermaid tail, Vicki Smith pointed to herself, crossed her arms on her chest, then gestured through the glass to her husband in the audience.
"I love you" was the message she sent, using sign language.
Jack Smith, a World War II Navy veteran, waved back.
Smith, 86, was one of 40 veterans who visited Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Tuesday for a mermaid show and luncheon. The group was on an outing for veterans and caretakers who participate in the James A. Haley VA Medical Center's foster home program.
The program provides homes and trained caretakers for veterans who can no longer live independently but prefer a more intimate environment than a nursing home, said Kim Peatee-Feld, a recreation therapist at the VA center. Between Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Polk counties, 30 homes accommodate 58 veterans.
"It provides them with a much higher quality of life," Peatee-Feld said. "They can avoid institutional nursing homes."
During the show, the veterans — some in wheelchairs, others with oxygen tubes — watched the park's legendary mermaids twirl in the spring-fed theater.
At one point, a pair of mermaids wearing American flag-themed leotards performed a routine to the song God Bless the USA. Bubbles shot up like fireworks while two more mermaids swam up with an American flag.
Korean War veteran Don Weidick, 80, leaned forward in his wheelchair and held up a camera.
"I thought it was beautiful," he said at the luncheon after the show. "I took a whole bunch of pictures."
His caretaker, Cynthia Harris, brought him a plate of baked beans, chips and a cheeseburger.
"Do you want potato salad, too?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, please," Weidick said.
As Harris walked back toward the food, Weidick explained a typical day at his foster home in Carollwood. He likes to go for walks with his cane or watch his favorite shows, including Law & Order and 30 Rock.
"That Tina Fey — she's a sharp lady," he said.
Harris, 61, organizes his medications, fixes his meals and takes him shopping. Sometimes, Harris' family comes to visit, a treat for Weidick. His three children are scattered in different parts of the country.
A few tables over, Vicki Smith, 74, sat next to her husband of 38 years. She said she decided to enroll him in the foster program last year after he started showing signs of dementia. She sees him almost every day to take him out for Dairy Queen soft serve or spend time at the Spring Hill home of his caretaker, Wilhel Wilks, 69.
Vicki, who first became a Weeki Wachee mermaid in 1957 and now performs one weekend a month with other former mermaids, helped organize Tuesday's outing for the veterans.
She said she knew that, under the watch of Wilks, her husband would be well taken care of.
"It was a godsend," she said of the foster program. "It really was."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (352) 754-6114 or [email protected]