LM Otero/AP
Librarian Holly Ryckman smiles as she chats with Dell Kaplan from the Davis Library in Plano, Texas, May 15, 2020. After seeing the significance of the programs offering phone calls to isolated older adults, some cities plan to keep these up permanently.

No longer isolated: Volunteers reach out with a phone call

With a simple phone call, programs across the U.S. offer older adults social outlets. It's going so well, some cities may make the outreach permanent.   

For Dell Kaplan, the offer to get calls from a stranger just to chat while staying home during the coronavirus pandemic was immediately appealing.

"It gets pretty lonely here by yourself," said Ms. Kaplan, an octogenarian who lives in a Dallas suburb. She's been missing meals out with friends, family get-togethers, and going to classes at a nearby college.

The program being offered by the city of Plano is among those that have popped up across the United States during the pandemic to help older adults with a simple offer to engage in small talk.

"It's really just to give them a social outlet that they might not have otherwise," said Holly Ryckman, a library support supervisor who is among about 15 staffers from several city departments in Plano who together have been making about 50 calls a week starting in April.

Brent Bloechle, a library manager who helped organize the program, said the city plans to keep it up through at least mid-summer, and maybe permanently.

The people receiving the calls have various amounts of social interaction in their lives, Ms. Ryckman said. Many, she said, talk about relatives who are in touch, so her call might just be "one piece of the puzzle" helping them stay engaged.

That's the case for Ms. Kaplan, who regularly talks with her daughter, granddaughters, and friends, keeps up with people on Facebook, and has been participating online in her adult-learning classes.

But Ms. Kaplan said her biweekly chats with Ms. Ryckman give her something to look forward to "besides the usual."

Laurie Onofrio-Collier has been making calls to older people across the U.S. from her California home as part of the AARP's Friendly Voices program. Ms. Onofrio-Collier said her goal is for each person she calls "to feel uplifted, to feel good."

Like the Plano program, the volunteers for the Friendly Voices program guide people to resources if they need help from local groups for things like getting groceries – AARP's Community Connections site lists groups across the U.S. offering help – but the main point is conversation.

Ms. Onofrio-Collier said some people she has called live with a spouse, while others live alone.

She said conversations touch on everything from hobbies to vacations to happy memories.

Ms. Onofrio-Collier bonded with one caller over a shared experience: "We ended up talking about how ... when we were kids we loved to read so much that we would read under the covers with a flashlight."

"I get off the phone with a smile," Ms. Onofrio-Collier said.

She is among about 1,000 volunteers making the calls, according to Andy Miller, senior vice president of AARP Innovations Labs.

Mr. Miller said some people want help with technology so they can stay connected with their grandchildren. One volunteer helped a woman figure out how to play online checkers with her grandchild.

"We're seeing a lot of that – where people are just trying to stay connected to family in ways that they probably didn't do before," Mr. Miller said.

Older adults are among those who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That's why health officials are encouraging people over 65 to stay home even as some states loosen restrictions put in place because of the pandemic. 

"Some seniors may be the last ones out because of the vulnerability," Mr. Miller said.

Ms. Kaplan, who retired 11 years ago after more than two decades managing Plano's senior center, said she and Ms. Ryckman didn't know each other, but found common ground in talking about the city and dealing with isolating at home.

Ms. Ryckman said the calls have been "a gift" for her.

Ms. Kaplan said that when she feels it's safe for her to venture to places other than the grocery store, she plans to visit the library and meet Ms. Ryckman in person.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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