This Program Helps You Give Friendly Calls to Lonely Seniors
For many Americans, there are a few words that sum up 2020: stress, fear, anxiety, and loneliness.
The obvious culprit for all of the above is the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to canceled holiday dinners, birthdays, and weddings.
But for most of us, navigating the social aspects of the crisis has been manageable, with socially distanced meetups and video chats between friends and families over Zoom and FaceTime. For many of the oldest seniors, however, who tend to be less digitally connected, and the 13.8 million Americans over age 65 who live alone, the difficulties this year have been even more challenging.
In upstate New York, Catholic Charities of Buffalo is trying to help make things a little bit easier ahead of the winter holidays. Through its new “phone visitation” program, older, mostly homebound residents are being matched to volunteers for weekly telephone conversations.
As advertisements for the effort sum it up, its reason for existing is simple yet profound: “Because life is better with friends.”
A Simple Call Can Mean the World to Them
“This year, COVID-19 has caused greater isolation — we’re seeing it everywhere,” says Linda Chadderdon, a social worker who is the program manager for visitation programs in Genesee and Orleans counties, which are halfway between Buffalo and Rochester, New York.
“Since people who are older are more at risk, there are those who are living without leaving their apartment buildings or at times not even going into hallways or speaking to neighbors,” says Chadderdon. “Getting a simple phone call can mean the world to them.”
According to a report that the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation released in October, two-thirds of U.S. adults said they had experienced social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. As a nation with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world and a country that, sadly, is a global leader in having the highest numbers of senior citizens who live alone, isolation has especially hit hard in the U.S.
“You don’t have to be Catholic to participate,” said Peg Patterson-Case, a Catholic Charities employee who works with Chadderdon to select and train the dozens of volunteers who now participate in phone visits with seniors. “You just have to be willing to listen and give your time.”
"There are those who are living without leaving their apartment buildings or even speaking to neighbors. Getting a simple phone call can mean the world to them."
The rules are simple. Volunteers must be 21 or older. Those with whom they are paired have to live independently. That means that they don't reside in nursing homes or other care facilities. The elders are allowed to live with family members, but the program is targeted toward those who have the least regular social interactions, such as people who live with family members who work full time outside the home. Some seniors reside in community-living complexes or high-rise apartments, “yet are still lonely because they have people all around them yet see them rarely or never,” says Chadderdon. Most of the elderly involved do not drive, though some “do and have a very limited social circle,” she adds.
Before they are paired with phone partners, volunteers undergo background checks and a two-hour training on boundary setting, conversation starters, and their roles as visitors.
Everyone Needs a Friend
Talk of religion and politics is discouraged because “it can be stressful,” says Patterson-Case. So is offering medical or financial advice or assistance to seniors. Volunteers are matched based on personality and interest. Book lovers, film buffs, and cooks are paired with those who share their hobbies. A volunteer who lives close to a senior will also be matched to that person, even though they will not be seeing each other in person. That’s to make in-person visits more convenient as the pandemic wanes and vaccines are released on a wide scale.
This year, several new volunteers have signed on in addition to the dozens from last year, when home visits were routine. The oldest volunteer is in her 90s, while the youngest is in her 40s. One volunteer has now participated in the program for eight years.
In Orleans County, private donors fund the visitation effort. In neighboring Genesee County, it’s paid for by the Muriel H. Marshall Fund for the Aging at Rochester Area Community Foundation. Called the Marshall Fund for short, it also offers several other free services for the aging that Catholic Charities administers, including free handyman services for small jobs, financial management and counseling, transportation, and the delivery of books and movies from the library into the homes of the elderly.
“What our volunteers are doing here is just a small part of a larger effort in our region to make seniors feel welcome and at home at this difficult time,” says Chadderdon. “Everyone needs a compassionate, understanding friend, no matter what is going on in the world.”