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Just a phone call away: County program matches seniors with new friends to deter isolation

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“Louise is stuck with me – I’m not letting her get away,” Rita joked.

New friendships can fuel a new enthusiasm for life — which is more important than ever at a later age — so Dutchess County, N.Y. is making matches to enrich the lives of its elderly population. Louise and Rita, who are 93 and 80 respectively, are proof of that, having developed a close relationship through the county’s new Friendly Calls program. 

The aim of Dutchess County’s Office for the Aging is to address feelings of isolation in older adults and to encourage friendships across all ages. Friendly Calls pairs up seniors who are looking for more socialization with interested volunteers based on their shared interests, hobbies and backgrounds. Calls between the two are arranged weekly for at least 20 minutes, but can be longer and more frequent depending on what the pair want.

“As we were starting to kind of come out of COVID in the fall of last year, we were thinking about the loneliness and isolation many of our seniors were feeling — even before the pandemic, but certainly as a result of the pandemic, that condition worsened,” said Todd Tancredi, director of the Office for the Aging. “… We thought that this program would be a perfect way for us to reach seniors who maybe don’t have anybody actively in their lives on a daily basis and if we’re lucky some friendships might grow out of it.”

Louise participates in the Office of the Aging’s Home Delivered Meals Program, and Rita volunteers to deliver meals. They’ve been talking on the phone since the end of January and plan to continue well beyond the eight-week period, Rita said.

“I live alone myself, so I know how important it is to be in touch with somebody,” Rita said. “Louise is absolutely delightful, and she makes my day when I get off the phone, she really does, she’s so sweet.”

Louise and Rita have only spoken to each other over the phone so far, but they’ve made plans to meet in person and Rita said she’s particularly excited to see Louise’s garden, as they speak often about the flowers she grows.

“When you can’t socialize and you’re in your house like I am — for two weeks here, I haven’t gone outdoors at all — and then someone calls you, it’s so good because it’s taking the place of socializing, you contacting each other,” Louise said.

Former state Sen. Sue Serino runs the program and connects people based off of questionnaires and follow-up conversations. Serino helped Dutchess County adapt Friendly Calls from the state-level program of the same name.

“During COVID, in my office, we were calling the seniors because everybody was home and seniors grew up in a time when they didn’t ask for help,” Serino said. “Knowing that they were isolated, we were making calls and we found that even just bringing some of the seniors a mask or what have you, you know, you show up to their door, wave to them, and it just felt like they were still having tough communication because there are a lot of seniors that might not have family members or people to talk to or try to help them, so socialization is really important.”

Louise said she’s thankful for the program and the genuine friendship she’s gained from it.

“Sue and Rita are beautiful people to call you — they know what questions to ask and how to make me open up and talk about my life and what’s happening, and once they call several times, they know certain things to continue that conversation — it’s not just that day, it goes into all the things you’ve talked about previously and it makes them very close to you,” she said. “Rather than somebody on the other end just talking at you, they’re my friends now, which is what I really need. I’m a very social person and when I’m alone in my house, it’s really hard to take that — I try to do all I can to not feel anxiety from it, but they are a great help.”

While Louise and Rita are close in age, the program has volunteers as young as students at the nearby Marist College.

“That’s the special thing about this program — a lot of times when people volunteer for something — and I’ve noticed this in my own life — we feel like we’re helping someone else, but lots of times we get as big a blessing out of volunteering as we give to the people we’re volunteering to serve,” Tancredi said.

Volunteers go through a short training process consisting of watching four videos and discussion surrounding boundaries, active listening and problem-solving guidance.

To find older adults who were interested in receiving calls, the Office for the Aging reached out to seniors who receive home-delivered meals through the agency, 43 of whom chose to be a part of Friendly Calls.

The structured calls also serve as a wellness check-in for those who might not have people keeping up with them regularly, Tancredi said.

“If Rita’s calling her person, and Louise says something that’s of concern, we want to make sure there’s room so that Rita can jot that down and get that information back to Sue and the office right away,” Tancredi said.

The program is currently running through word-of-mouth referrals, but moving forward, the plan is to work with other groups, like libraries and hospitals, in the hopes that they can eventually reach all of the county’s elderly population, according to Serino.

“I don’t think there’s any limit to the size this program could grow to, because there’s so many lonely people in the world,” Tancredi said. “The main thing we always want older adults to know is that they’re not alone — even if they don’t have family or friends around, they’re not alone — because the Office for Aging is here and we have people who care about them, whether it’s our staff or volunteers.”

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