Many Veterans Face a Double Threat: COVID-19 and Isolation

Veterans, additionally challenged by the pandemic, can realize therapeutic and rehabilitative benefits from crafting kits

We have long known that the elderly and those with comprised immune systems are especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection, and the statistics have borne that out. But in our urgency to respond to the virus, we may lose sight of the terrible toll isolation is taking. In a sense, the very act of protecting our most vulnerable exposes them to another unhealthy condition.

Their families understand this. For the most part, they speak with their loved ones on Zoom or Skype or arrange with them to wave from their window as their children or grandchildren wave back from the driveway or parking lot. Isolation is the price many of these people are paying to stay safe. No touching, no closeness, none of the human warmth that people in ill health need from families.

People who are isolated at home may enjoy their familiar surroundings and the care of a family member, but they may be denied visits with friends and grandchildren, and even simple outings that may once have been possible are now out of the question. No parks. No supermarket. No breakfast out on Saturday morning.

Many of these isolated Americans are veterans — from the Korean conflict to the Vietnam War to our more recent actions. They may suffer from the expected conditions of old age or from the horrible injuries of recent combat that strike down the young. Many suffer from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or substance abuse. With the additional challenge of social isolation, finding ways to combat depression, anxiety and loneliness is critical.

Help Heal Veterans (Heal Vets), a nonprofit founded during the Vietnam War, has gone into overdrive in response, shipping more than 150,000 free craft kits since the beginning of the pandemic and creating a newly designed kit to help veterans make the masks they need to stay healthy and safe. It is a simple mission, built on the principle that not all medicine comes in a bottle, and the knowledge that a healthy spirit is essential to overall health.

Heal Vets distributes kits in craft categories like masks, leatherwork, models, woodwork, jewelry, paint-by-numbers, needlecrafts, poster art, scrapbooks and more. Crafting can provide therapeutic and rehabilitative benefits, including improving fine motor skills, cognitive functioning, memory and dexterity, and can help alleviate feelings of anger and the severity of negative behaviors triggered by PTSD and TBIs.

Being alone in a pandemic can be terrifying and deeply debilitating. Many of the nation’s veterans are considered high-risk and have been in lockdown for months. They receive no visits — not from friends, family or volunteers — and have limited interaction with staff.

We share the VA’s concern increasing numbers of veterans might experience suicidal thoughts  during this time of increased stress from isolation and financial uncertainty, so we are working closely with the VA Suicide Prevention Program to start including VA-produced suicide prevention awareness and education material with our kits.

With demands flooding in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, kits have been distributed to more than 90 Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers around the country and a large number of military bases, state veteran homes and other locations where the need is great.

In a recent survey of vets, 94% of those polled who use Heal Vets craft kits said the kits helped them have a more positive outlook on life, and 98% said the kits took their mind off problems.

Anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges can reach serious levels during this quarantine period. Luckily, there are tangible ways to support isolated and sick veterans in their most significant time of need. Our craft kits are one way, and we are happy to provide this simple solution. But human contact is irreplaceable.

This is a time to remember veterans who still suffer from combat wounds or exposure to toxins, or who simply are experiencing the natural decline that comes with old age. We may not be able to touch them, but we can call or video chat. We can call their attention to things we know will make them smile. We can send an audio book. We can try to bring them into the world outside. We can let them know that we remember them and are waiting to embrace them again. That also helps vet heal. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the most effective.

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