VA and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation recently hosted the Seventh Annual National Caregiver Convening in Washington, D.C. to deliver a message of support for our caregivers and to implore them to make more use of the many support systems available to them. During the event, VA’s Center for Development & Civic Engagement spoke about another very important related topic: loneliness.
Loneliness is one of those troublesome conditions which is common but that no one wants to talk about it. It can be worsened by having a medical condition such as Parkinson’s disease. It can also be a risk factor for certain medical conditions, like dementia, stroke and heart disease. It also can increase risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and, of great interest to VA, suicidal ideations.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her team published research in 2014 that indicated loneliness and social isolation as major risk factors for mortality, stating that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has not only called loneliness a public health crisis but also called it an epidemic, due to the number of people it affects.
Within the Veteran population, those experiencing homelessness or living in rural areas are at even greater risk.
What is loneliness?
It is the gap between what a person desires in relationship and what they have in their relationships. You can be happily married or in a room full of people and still experience incredible loneliness. The United Kingdom and Japan have Ministers of Loneliness to address this crisis. The U.K. has found success with national programs designed to increase social connectedness. These social prescribing interventions refer patients to community organizations for activities and connection.
Through the VA Center for Development & Civic Engagement, volunteers – often members of Veteran service organizations – provide Veterans with regular engagement. One social prescription program, VA’s award-winning Compassionate Contact Corps, matches Veterans who are socially isolated or experiencing loneliness with trained volunteers who connect with them via phone or video.
For this program, VA has partnered with AARP, Rotary Club, American Legion Auxiliary, Blue Star Mothers, Soldier’s Angels, and other Veteran service organizations. In 2021, the program was officially designated a Signature Program by American Red Cross.
VA’s Volunteer In-home Visitor program matches Veterans with civically engaged members of their community. It provides the bonus of offering weekly caregiver respite that can complement other caregiver support programs (peer support, the caregiver support line, etc.). Using volunteers in these types of programs is a force multiplier.
Providing the caregiver the additional respite they deserve
In 2019, a Blue Star mother shared that the Volunteer In-home Visitor program would have added tremendous value to the quality of her life as a caregiver. At the end of the recent conference, several caregivers applauded the highlighting of this important topic
It’s important for Veterans and caregivers to come forward when they’re experiencing loneliness and social isolation, and for organizations like VA to be there for them when they do. Are social prescribing programs the panacea for loneliness? Of course not.
This non-pharmacological prescription provides the Veteran with additional social support. It can provide the caregiver with the additional respite they deserve and it provides clinicians with another arrow in their quiver to improve the holistic health and wellbeing of vets.
To begin receiving Compassionate Contact Corps calls, please speak with your clinician or social worker and ask for a referral. If you would like to volunteer for Compassionate Contact Corps or one of VA’s other volunteer opportunities, visit www.volunteer.va.gov.