Just Ask Our Veterans: Intentional Neighboring Can Improve Your Health

Written by Dylan Tête Posted On Monday, 03 October 2022 00:00

Tyler was a 27-year-old highspeed paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to a remote base in Afghanistan when he felt a tingling sensation in the left side of his body one day in 2014.

“Drive on, Airborne,” he told himself. But he was having a stroke. Days would pass before a medevac could lift him to Baghdad, then Germany, and finally to the United States. But the damage was done. Tyler had a permanent brain injury.

He was living out of his truck in 2020 when Bastion – the New Orleans nonprofit I started nearly a decade ago to support injured warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – got a call to “please help us find a home for Tyler.” We did.

Bastion is a unique neighborhood designed and built from the ground up to fill a gap in the continuum of care for veterans with life-altering injuries and their families. Our five-acre campus contains 58 apartment homes, with open greenspace and a community center. At Bastion, Tyler doesn’t just have a home. He has an intentional community, which provides the support he needs to thrive.

You can think of Bastion as a specialized neighborhood of care: We integrate neighbors into the care team for warriors who need instrumental assistance and peer support for the rest of their lives. It’s primarily this wealth of social capital that empowers servicemembers to successfully recover from their injuries and reintegrate into society. The concept, called intentional neighboring, was pioneered by Brenda Eheart, a visionary social worker in Illinois.

When he walks out his front door, Tyler is just a few steps away from a team of licensed professionals who work on site: Rachel, his occupational therapist; Allison, a vocational rehab counselor and certified brain injury specialist; and Lovella, his social worker who connects him with employment and legal services and the benefits he’s earned. 

The United States needs more of these communities of care, and Bastion can serve as a blueprint. That requires investors and government and corporate leaders willing to step up with financial and other support. We also need the Defense Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, and veteran service organizations across the country to turn their attention to the problem of our generation: How will we provide care for the 450,000 veterans living with a brain injury?

When I began Bastion in 2012, our overarching goal was reintegration – just like every other transition program sponsored by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. What I didn’t know back then was the power of place, the power community, and the power of intentional neighboring. Veterans like Tyler are proving to the country that we can heal and grow together, and today we have the data to support this claim.

In partnership with my Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program colleague LeNaya Hezel, Founder and CEO of NayceQuest LLC, and the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Public Health, we have measured several variables in our resident population over the past five years, including social connectedness and emotional well-being. We discovered that resilience peaked during COVID-19, well-being increased over time, and loneliness decreased over time.

Let me emphasize that: Although resilience scores fluctuated within the normal range from 2017 to 2021, they were the highest at the end of 2020, during the peak of the pandemic. This is noteworthy given that U.S. households at the same income level as our residents were more likely to have a low resilience score. 

Residents are also reporting increases in well-being. In fact, average scores for emotional well-being and social functioning jumped dramatically – by 20 and 30 points, respectively – from 2019 to 2021. At the same time, respondents are reporting decreases in loneliness at a time when loneliness spiked across the U.S. and the world.

Social capital is health capital. Social networks, social support, social connectedness – all these things that have to do with our feelings of acceptance in the tribe – can improve well-being, moving us beyond the mere absence of disease and into the arena of why we choose to live.

Intentional communities are filling the gap in the continuum of care for many of us who need the kind of love and support that specialized neighborhoods like Bastion can provide. Tyler’s story illustrates that we can overcome the challenges of our day – an epidemic of loneliness and our lack of social trust – when we open our lives to everyone around us.

Together, we can find the reasons to live – and live well.

Dylan Tete 1Dylan Tête is the Founder and Executive Director of Bastion Community of Resilience and a 2021 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar.

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