The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures put in place to prevent its spread have impacted the health and wellbeing of older Veterans. Social isolation has long been recognized as a risk for older adults, contributing to increased risk of depression, physical inactivity, and mortality. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and transitions to tele-delivery of health care have changed the way that older Veterans connect with VA and others. Older Veterans and Veterans with serious mental illness (SMI) are especially vulnerable to experience negative impacts from social isolation and loneliness.
To address the need for increased connection for older Veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the VISN 5 MIRECC has launched the VA Connection Plans project. The Connection Plan intervention was originally created by Kim Van Orden, a researcher and expert on social isolation in older adults at the University of Rochester. Drawing from suicide safety planning and the cognitive behavioral model, the Connection Plan intervention is designed to help older adults create a plan to cope with distress related to social isolation. In 1-2 brief remote sessions, interventionists work with the older adult to create a Connection Plan with three parts: Mind (ways to change negative thoughts), Body (ways to change unpleasant body sensations) and Connections (ways to increase social engagement). The intervention is designed so that any trained staff can deliver it – including, but not limited to licensed independent practitioners and Peer Specialists.
Seeing the potential for the Connection Plan intervention to improve the lives of older Veterans, the present authors (Drs. Samantha Hack, Amanda Peeples, and Anjana Muralidharan) got permission from Dr. Van Orden to adapt this intervention to the VA context and create a VA-specific Connection Plans manual. After seeking feedback from older Veterans, mental health providers and providers working in Geriatrics and Extended Care, a beta version of the manual was created. Through an iterative process of training interventionists and trying out the intervention, first in role plays with other staff, and then with Veteran participants, a rich, user-friendly, and instructive final version of the manual was created, and is now available for download at the VISN 5 MIRECC website.
Efforts to deliver and disseminate the intervention are underway as part of a multi-site clinical demonstration project. Partnering with the VISN 16 GRECC in Little Rock, Arkansas, our team aims to deliver the VA Connection Plan intervention to approximately 550 older Veterans with (age 50+) and without (age 65+) serious mental illness across the VA Maryland Healthcare System (VAMHCS) and the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHCS). In addition, we aim to train VA staff across the country to deliver the intervention themselves, with the hope that the VA Connection Plan intervention can eventually be delivered to thousands of older Veterans!
If you are interested in learning more about the VA Connection Plan intervention, members of the VA Connection Plans Team will be presenting “VA Connection Plans: An Introduction and Clinical Training for a Social Connection Intervention for Veterans” at the VA National Mental Health Recovery & Wellness Webinar Series* on May 11, 2021. Stayed tuned for more information about upcoming webinars on the VISN 5 MIRECC website! If you would like us to offer a training for your team, or if you have any other questions or thoughts, drop us an e-mail at VHABAL.email@example.com.
Are you in VAMHCS or CAVHCS and know of an older Veteran who could benefit from a VA Connection Plan? Send along the referral in an encrypted e-mail to VHABAL.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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