As veterans struggle with loneliness, advocates push for more social-building programs
By Dave McGinn – The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2022 — Agnes Conrad was at a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Chester, N.S., this week, watching fellow veterans build scale models of ships and planes. Ms. Conrad, a 77-year-old who served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp, regularly attends these Monday night events called Operation VetBuild, a program designed to reduce social isolation among veterans.
DARREN CALABRESE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Agnes Conrad was at a Royal Canadian Legion branch in Chester, N.S., this week, watching fellow veterans build scale models of ships and planes. Ms. Conrad, a 77-year-old who served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp, regularly attends these Monday night events called Operation VetBuild, a program designed to reduce social isolation among veterans.
Last year, Ms. Conrad was working on a helicopter, but it took her forever just to glue it together. Now, she comes to chat and hang out.
“The military is a comradeship. And when you leave it, you miss all the comrades that you had,” she said.
The conditions of military life that help create such close connections may also make veterans much more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness after they’ve left. There are inherent stresses, dangers and potential trauma in military service, which can leave physical and emotional scars that can also contribute to loneliness afterward.
At the urging of veterans’ advocacy organizations, the 2021 census asked questions specifically about those who have served in the military. It was the first time the census had done so in 50 years. It found that nearly one-quarter of veterans live alone, a much higher rate than the overall population. With that information in hand, advocacy organizations are empowered to speak out for more supports and programs to address loneliness among veterans.
“It’s important for us to have this conversation so folks don’t feel like they’re on their own, and that there is support available for them, that there is a community that’s trying to get them to a place that is better for their recovery journey,” said Fardous Hosseiny, president and chief executive officer of the Atlas Institute for Veterans and Families, which works to bridge the divide between research and practice. “It’s worth a lot of work that needs to be done,” Mr. Hosseiny added.
Many researchers say loneliness has become an epidemic.
More Canadians are living alone than ever – 4.4 million people in 2021, up from 1.7 million in 1981, according to Statistics Canada. The census found that 23.1 per cent of veterans live alone. It is a rate much higher than Canadians overall, with 28.1 per cent of female veterans living alone compared with 16.9 per cent of woman over all and 22.2 per cent of male veterans living alone compared with 14.7 per cent of men over all.
Living alone doesn’t necessarily mean a person is lonely, but there is a strong correlation. According to Statistics Canada, 24 per cent of people who live alone say they always or often feel lonely, compared with 11 per cent of people living with others.
Social isolation and loneliness are associated with both increased mortality and morbidity and are also connected to significant risk factors for chronic disorders, such as heart disease, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol and substance-use disorder and suicide and suicidal ideation, Mr. Hosseiny said.
The realities of military life likely make veterans particularly susceptible to loneliness, said Oliver Thorne, executive director of the Veterans Transition Network, a Vancouver-based charity that helps veterans transition from the military to civilian life.
Going from one posting to another every few years can make it difficult to establish a reliable social network, and when service people leave the military, they can experience a loss of identity that can make it difficult to connect with others, Mr. Thorne said.
“It can be very jarring. And I would definitely say that there is a higher risk of experiencing loneliness as a result of a service,” he said.
Craig Hood was inspired to create the Royal Canadian Legion’s Operation VetBuild by a similar initiative in Britain. Launched in 2019, the program now runs in 37 legion branches across the country.
Most veterans who attend Op VetBuild are drawn to it for the camaraderie, said Mr. Hood, the national program co-ordinator.
“What we’ve actually found is that they actually do less model building and more socializing,” he said. “Having a hobby helps stave off things like anxiety and depression and other things that are commonly associated with operational stress injuries or post-traumatic stress.”
Participation in programs such as Op VetBuild is proven to help people alleviate feelings of loneliness, said Julie Schermer, a professor at the University of Western Ontario who studies loneliness.
“They feel more connected to these individuals, because they’re not doing something in isolation. They’re doing something as a group, they’re discussing it. And those discussions then lead into how they’re feeling,” she said.
Unfortunately, the program struggles to attract younger veterans.
“That’s one of our issues,” said Gerry MacNeil, who oversees the Op VetBuild program at the legion branch in Chester, N.S.
One reason why legion programs may have difficulty attracting younger veterans might simply be owing to the fact that it has relatively few younger members.
The legion now has approximately 250,000 members across the country, down from 604,000 in 1984. As of 2018, 80 per cent of those members were over 55.
Not being able to reach younger veterans is a problem because they are more likely to experience loneliness than older veterans, according to preliminary results of a study of veterans’ well-being during the pandemic led by Don Richardson, scientific director of the MacDonald Franklin Operational Stress Injury Research Centre.
Younger veterans, those under 55, who are not in long-term relationships and who live alone were most likely to report feeling lonely, Dr. Richardson said.
“Increased loneliness was associated with increased PTSD symptoms we looked at, and not surprisingly, increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and problematic alcohol use,” he added.
John Siiro, a 46-year-old who retired from the military after 21 years of service and now lives alone in Edmonton after his divorce, says he sometimes struggles with loneliness, especially when his 10-year-old daughter isn’t with him.
“When I’m here by myself, yeah, you definitely feel a little bit of loneliness. Sometimes you’re thinking like, you know, nobody plans to live on their own at this age,” he said.
Mr. Siiro keeps busy golfing and fishing, and only occasionally visits a legion branch.
“It is unusual for vets my age or younger to be involved the legion,” he said.
The silver lining of the latest census data is that they can and should lead to a better understanding of why so many veterans are living alone, as well as what programs they may need to address problems of loneliness, Mr. Thorne, of the Veterans Transition Network, said.
Having more information helps the government and organizations such as his better understand “where these folks are, who they are, what challenges they’re facing,” he said. And this, in turn, “helps us understand what services are needed, and how we can adapt to meet those services,” he added.
“This information is hugely important because it just helps us get another piece of the picture.”