Charities link up to support former forces’ officers suffering from loneliness

Mike Dowling, an Hon Rep for the Officers' Association in Yorkshire
Mike Dowling, an Hon Rep for the Officers' Association in Yorkshire
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The life of a forces’ officer can be insulated, kept away from those ranked below them in the officers’ mess, their heightened position enforcing separation - but in retirement this can turn into loneliness, both for those that have spent a lifetime in the military and their spouses.

But a charity which supports former officers from all three forces has teamed up with two national befriending services to ensure those in Yorkshire and beyond do not suffer the burden of loneliness.

The Officers’ Association (OA) is a charity established in 1920 after the First World War with the aim of relieving distress in officers leaving the forces, and support them on their transition to civilian life.

Nearly 100 years later, it continues to support former officers and their families but has found that increasingly the issues they face are not simply financial or practical, such as help with mobility equipment - but more holistic, for those with a lack of human contact.

It has struck up a new collaboration with The Silver Line and Age UK to pilot befriending services among those they support.

The OA’s volunteers, called honorary representatives, are being trained as telephone befrienders for the Silver Line, the helpline for older people set up by Dame Esther Rantzen, who has voiced her support for the Yorkshire Post’s Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, and will also direct their clients to the two charities for help.

Mike Dowling from Holmfirth is the OA’s honorary representative for Yorkshire. He was in the officer training corps before spending 22 years in the Territorial Army and discovered the OA after his son, a regular officer in the army, was supported by the charity on leaving the forces.

Mr Dowling said: “People turn to me all the time and say, ‘I have all the money I need but what I really want is some human contact’.

“There’s an established insularity for officers, you’re been kept separate in the officers’ mess, and it’s not that you’re wanting to keep separate from society but your lifestyle and job puts you in an isolated position.

“They can afford to pay for a holiday or keep the car running but it’s the human contact that is missing.

“They haven’t bridged the gap by joining the local knitting groups or a bridge club. Sometimes they just need pointing in the right direction, but sometimes they need a little more support.”

Lifestyle can also be a factor - living in large, isolated properties and may not have neighbours to hand.

Head of service delivery at Age UK, John Edwards, said it would be providing telephone friendship, but would also can direct clients to services in their own area such as social activities and benefits advice, “which should help them as well.”

Chris Furlong, chairman of the Grants Committee of the Civil Service Insurance Society (CSiS) Charity Fund, which is funding the pilots, said the initiative is “very worthwhile”.

He said: “We know from feedback from many of the charities we support that loneliness is a significant factor in the lives of the people they help. Research conducted by various organisations has shown that loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to people’s mental and physical wellbeing, and has been proved to be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Last year the OA supported 39 former officers or their dependants in Yorkshire, but the charity believes there are many more people in the region it could be reaching.

Mr Dowling said: “Yorkshire is the biggest county, historically with a large forces population. The client base here should be quite extraordinary but people either don’t know about us or have a natural reluctance to throw themselves at what they see a charity.

“But they need to know that this type of service can transform their lives.”

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