Loneliness and isolation can affect older people generally, but there can be additional challenges tackling it for veterans. Often they miss social contact with other veterans, who understand their experiences, and with whom they can enjoy the bond of military comradeship. Doug Anthoney from the Age Scotland Veterans’ Project visited a project in Motherwell that offers veterans just that.
A cold Friday morning and my taxi awaits by Glasgow Queen Street Station. “Get in,” says the driver, “I got you a coffee.” If that doesn’t sound like an ordinary taxi, that’s because it isn’t. David Gibson is both co-ordinator and a driver for Fares4Free: a charity that arranges taxis for veterans who are isolated and unable to get to important services, and one of Age Scotland’s partners in the Unforgotten Forces consortium. Today we’re off to the Veterans’ Café at Kings Church in Motherwell: VC@KC for short.
On the way we pick up Rosie, a nurse who supports veterans with health issues to attend the café for their first few weeks. Today she’s off-duty however, and going because she’s a veteran herself. We also collect a veteran who has been isolated and is going to the café for the first time. As we drive it becomes clear that David’s service goes far beyond transport: he is a listening ear, information source and problem solver for veterans. “Sometimes veterans wont’ share their problems for a long time,” he says. “It’s only after you’ve been driving them for months, even years, that you’ll have built up the trust for them to tell you.”
We arrive at the Café, and it’s buzzing. There are over 40 veterans; some young, but most older. I talk to one who did national service. “I feel a bit guilty, not really a veteran like the others,” he says. Julie Muir, who co-founded the café in 2015, says this is not uncommon. “We had a man here who had served in military air traffic control; and he didn’t feel entitled. We persuaded him that of course he was a veteran, and helped him get his service medal. He and his family were so chuffed.”
Julie and her husband Scott left military service in 2002, but found resettlement hard and support structures inadequate. “We thought, if we struggled with no debt, no kids, and no health problems, then how much harder will it be for veterans who face such problems.”
The café had a slow start. “Initially there were more volunteers than veterans,” says Julie. Attendance really picked up when they learned about veterans’ housing that was being built. “We got a list of the houses and popped round with hampers for the veterans. Now we have around 20 regulars, and there are about ten for whom it’s the only thing they go to.”
So why does it work? “We’ve learned that a military-style environment is the last thing you need,” says Julie. “Some served for a few days, some for 22 years. No one gets treated any differently, and all feel they belong. We don’t make distinctions between the services. Everyone looks out for each other, and there are no cliques.” It also helps that it’s a café. “For some of the guys, they really don’t want to go near a bar!”
The café is a hub for veterans’ services, including Unforgotten Forces partners such as the Armed Services Advice Project and Defence Medical Welfare Service. It’s also about helping veterans’ families, including in some instances respite time for veterans’ carers. “We’ve got new funding and plans to expand,” says Julie. We want to offer more activities such as gardening and cooking. Many of our veterans feel they’ve got a lot, now they would like to give back.”
To find out what the Veterans’ Project can do for older veterans, and for clubs, groups and services that would like to work with them, visit www.agescotland.org.uk/veterans.