Breakfast, banter and bonding - Chelsea Pensioners connect with the wider veteran community

21st October 2020

Breakfast Club before the Covid restrictions
The Royal Hospital introduced its Breakfast Club before lockdown, but it’s really come into its own under the restrictions. 

“We had been hosting a Breakfast Club inviting other veterans to join us for breakfast in our Great Hall as part of a national scheme to get veterans to meet up around the UK”,explains Captain Frankie Howell, who oversees the club, “But when lockdown happened, we needed to reach out to people.”

Under lockdown, online communications thrived. Up and down the country, people began connecting virtually and, for many, Zoom, FaceTime and other online platforms became a lifeline. However, because many older people weren’t used to connecting in this way, they risked becoming completely cut off. 

The Royal Hospital wanted to ensure that Chelsea Pensioners could still stay connected with friends and family, so we supported them to make video calls to their loved ones. We also saw the potential to adapt our Breakfast Club to include veterans from outside our walls who might be feeling isolated. It was our Governor, General Sir Adrian Bradshaw – also Chairman of Blesma – who suggested linking up with the charity for limbless veterans.  

The initiative is proving to be a great success. The Pensioners are matched with Blesma members according to regiment and, where possible, date of service. Having common ground means it doesn’t take long before bonds are forged. 

“The most enjoyable hour I spent during lockdown”

Blesma member 65-year-old Robin Smithers from Chelmsford, a former Grenadier Guard, describes his online chat as “the most memorable and enjoyable hour I spent during lockdown”. He particularly relished the banter, which brought back happy memories of his time in the Army:

“There were four of us and we got on brilliantly and had such a good laugh. It was refreshing to go back into that old military mentality, all telling funny stories about our past Sergeant Majors! We fitted in so well that we could have been in a staff mess anywhere. The Guardsman mentality is unique – if it stands still, we’ll polish it, if it runs we’ll shoot it! I’d love to do another session.”

“We all feel a bit isolated sometimes – connecting via a call is a great idea”

The positive feeling was mutual, as Chelsea Pensioner Dave Cootes, 75, who also took part, testifies:

“We had a really good chat and at the end we were all saying we’d love to do it again. We talked about where we’d been and what we’d done with our regiments. It started off gently but then the banter began bouncing. It took us right back – to all the things that went wrong and all the mates who caused chaos! 

The call gave me comradeship – similar to being a Chelsea Pensioner. One of the reasons I’m here is to put something back into the community of veterans. We all sometimes feel a bit isolated, so connecting via a call is a great idea. It was nice sharing what it’s like being at the Royal Hospital too. It’s a brilliant place for an ex-serviceman when he’s left on his own. It’s the best thing I ever did.”

Captain Howell says the Breakfast Club chats are also a great way to show Blesma members the benefits of being a Chelsea Pensioner:

“If you’re a veteran with limb loss, this place is set up for you, but a lot of people don’t know the rules about getting in.” 

“It can do your mental health a tremendous amount of good”

The scheme has been such a success that the plan is to extend it, as Martin Gwillim, Blesma’s outreach coordinator explains:

“Frankie gives me a list of names and potted histories of the Chelsea Pensioners involved and I try to match them up with our members. So far, they’ve all  had great chats. Numbers and details have been swapped. We’ve had two Padres chatting and an ex-Dragoon Guard even had a personalised mug made for someone he met on a call!”

Blesma members, like the Chelsea Pensioners, have been supported to use the technology they need and this knowledge has opened up a host of opportunities for all the veterans. The benefits of the connections they’re making are plain to see, says Martin:

“This is all part of a wider trend that can do your mental health a tremendous amount of good, especially if you’re isolated.” 

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