Navy and Air Force Veteran loses 50 lbs. and gets healthy during the lockdown, with help from a VA program

Maryland Veterans avoid isolation and embrace health, thanks to a VA project called Connection Plans

By Rosalia Scalia, MA
Posted 10/26/21

While everyone gained the “quarantine 15” during the pandemic lock down, Martaineous Allen, 52, a Navy and an Air Force Veteran lost 50 pounds, began walking to exercise more, and added …

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Navy and Air Force Veteran loses 50 lbs. and gets healthy during the lockdown, with help from a VA program

Maryland Veterans avoid isolation and embrace health, thanks to a VA project called Connection Plans

Posted

While everyone gained the “quarantine 15” during the pandemic lock down, Martaineous Allen, 52, a Navy and an Air Force Veteran lost 50 pounds, began walking to exercise more, and added transcendental meditation to his routine.

His goal? To get control of his diabetes, destress, and to embrace a healthier lifestyle. And to achieve these goals, Allen received help from providers at the VA Maryland Health Care System.

Recognizing that many Veterans — particularly those over age 50 — experienced significant changes to their routines during the pandemic, researchers at the VA Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC) at the VA Maryland Health Care System partnered with researchers at the VA Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC) at the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System to develop the VA Connection Plans intervention.

“The Connection Plans' three focuses — Body, Mind, and Connections — aim to help Veterans set concrete goals in taking care of their bodies, their minds and their social connections,” said Dr. Samantha Hack, who oversees the project.

A Whole Health Intervention to promote social connections for Veterans, the VA Connection Plans intervention is designed for use by peer specialists, social workers, psychologist, nurses, and other professionals with training in basic mental health techniques to empower Veterans by providing them skills to address the aspects of social isolation.

To create and implement the plan, interventionists reach out to participating Veterans, and in the first 30-60 minute conversation, they discuss what the Veteran wants to achieve in each category — Body, Mind, or Connections — and outline the steps to achieve those goals.

In the second conversation, the interventionists follow up to see how the plans worked out and if the Veteran is wanting to revisit goals or set new ones. In some cases, Veterans may not want to admit feeling lonely, isolated, or depressed either because they have adapted to COVID restrictions or because they choose not to disclose any difficulties they might be having.

In these cases, interventionists ask Veterans what has helped them cope and reinforce their existing activities and coping skills.

“We meet Veterans where they are. If their effort to feel connected starts with them smiling at someone, that’s where we start,” said Hack.

“It’s best to build on what the Veterans are already safely doing,” said Dr. Anjana Muralidharan, a clinical psychologist who serves as the lead clinician for the project.

For older Veterans and those struggling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, this translates into setting small goals that are attainable. This can include body goals such as stretching daily or going for a walk around the block, mind goals such as meditating for 10 minutes before bedtime or listening to one’s favorite music in the afternoons, or connections goals like going walking with a loved one or feeling more connected to nature by going hiking a few times a week.

“These small goals may not seem like much, but because they are attainable, when Veterans achieve them, it builds confidence. Then they may feel more ready to take the goal further,” said Muralidharan.

Some of the goals Veterans set for themselves focus on keeping in contact with loved ones and include learning to use or asking for help in using technology that will allow them to video chat with their loved ones locked down in nursing homes or elsewhere, said Muralidharan, who noted that about 50 Veterans are now enrolled in the project across the two sites — Maryland and Arkansas.

Although the pandemic is winding down and more places are opening, the individualized focus of VA Connection Plans can be tailored to meet the ongoing needs of older Veterans and those with mental health disorders.

“Social isolation was an issue before the pandemic, and will continue to be an issue when the pandemic has passed,” said Muralidharan.

Using evidence from the clinical demonstration project at the VA Maryland Health Care System, the MIRECC team is preparing a proposal to expand VA Connections Plans to serve Veterans throughout the VA Capitol Health Care Network VISN 5. In the meantime, providers who would like to offer VA Connection Plans can download the intervention manual at https://www.mirecc.va.gov/visn5/training/connection_plans.asp and Veterans enrolled at the VA Maryland Health Care System who would like to participate in VA Connection Plans should call 443-421-6270.

— Rosalia Scalia, MA, is a public affairs specialist with VA Maryland Health Care System.