Every week, Linda Daniels dials the phone numbers of 40 seniors who live around the gentle hills of Lawton, Oklahoma. She talks to them about their families, their pets, their hopes and fears. She’s spoken to one client, who can’t read, nearly every other day since March. “It’s very beneficial for him to know that he’s not by himself. That there are still people out there who are concerned about him,’ says Daniels. “We just want to make sure they have someone to talk to.”
Before the pandemic, Daniels worked as a receptionist at the Center for Creative Living in Lawton’s southwest ward, where community elders gathered for bridge tournaments, movie nights, and tai chi. Its doors are now closed for the safety of the patronage, cutting off a vital social organ for the retiree class. But the center was undeterred; the staff gathered the contact information for those in solitude, and Daniels took it from there. For now, she makes a living by reminding the elders of Lawton that they are not alone.
“Just a phone call each day brightens them up,” Daniels says.
Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been clear that seniors are among the most vulnerable groups. That’s true not only when it comes to physical health — the case fatality rate for Covid-19 patients above the age of 80 is reportedly nearly 8 percent — but also mental health. The elderly are one of the most lonely demographics in America. Condemning that demographic into social isolation has likely levied a psychic toll, especially for seniors living in retirement or assisted living homes where family members might be barred from entry.
Some states, cities, and organizations have lurched into action to give our senior citizens something to look forward to every day. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) kicked off what he calls the “Social Bridging Project,” hiring 1,000 people to call the state’s older residents in quarantine to “connect with them with them on a social level.” Massachusetts has similarly leveraged its police workforce for an initiative called “Chat With a Trooper,” and the Maine-based organization PeoplePlus invited 400 seniors to be recipients of its check-in service.
Most of these programs are medically adjacent, and some of them, including the Friendship Line in San Francisco, Senior Loneliness Line in Oregon, Maryland’s Senior Call Check, and the Center for Creative Living’s outreach existed before getting restarted or reinvigorated by the pandemic. Traditionally, they’ve been a good way to check in on the elder population’s health concerns, ensuring their prescriptions are being renewed. But as the vast majority of senior relations has moved to the internet, the people making these calls find themselves filling a more metaphysical need: When visitation schedules are canceled and loved ones are forced to stand six feet away, seniors need something to look forward to.
“It’s been a lifesaver,” says Merrilyn Tombrinck, an 80-year old woman in Topsham, Maine, and a self-described “people person,” who’s been receiving those check-in phone calls from PeoplePlus throughout the pandemic. “It’s just nice to hear a voice. They ask me if I have everything I need. … It’s good to be able to talk.”
Tombrinck lives alone and says she frequently doesn’t know what to do with herself during the long days and nights of quarantine. If nothing else, a phone call gives her a sense of structure. Her experience echos evidence that many seniors struggle with lack of social contact. Carla Perissinotto, the associate chief for geriatrics clinical programs at the University of California, San Francisco, says that while loneliness isn’t exclusive to old people, the risk factors for social isolation tend to increase with age. Perissinotto contributed to a recent report published by the National Academies of Sciences that found a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among those who express feelings of persistent alienation. Simply put, there’s evidence that social well-being and physical health are more intertwined than we previously imagined.
Sue Pence, 55, is trying to stem the tide. She’s worked as a transportation coordinator at Care Resources PACE in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for more than a year. But after the pandemic, she pivoted to making 15 to 25 phone calls a day to elders around her neighborhood.
“They say, ‘You think you’re just making a call to check on us, but it actually means a whole lot more,’” says Pence. “Now I talk to them about their dogs and their cats. I have a lady who has a bird. We joke about different things. It makes me feel like I have a purpose.”
Pence lives alone. Her kids don’t live nearby, and she lost her husband four years ago — caretaking for him sparked her career interest in public health. That makes it easy for her to relate to the citizens she’s calling; they both feel deserted in quarantine, and they could both use a social outlet as the Earth stands still. “Talking to them makes me feel like I’m talking to family, when I can’t talk to my own family sometimes,” she adds.
Walker Brandt, a college student at Wesleyan University, was struck by the harsh realities of quarantine after learning that the retirement community that used to house his grandmother was no longer allowing visitors during New York’s shelter-in-place order. He wanted to make sure that at-risk seniors had something to look forward to, so Brandt started Support a Pal, a program that pairs young people with residents of the Dyckman Senior Center in New York City for a pen pal-like relationship. Unlike some of the other programs in the country, Support a Pal exists as a non-medical apparatus; Brandt’s volunteers, many of whom are college students, communicate with seniors solely to provide social interaction.
Like an inter-generational matchmaker for the coronavirus era, Brandt works to make sure the relationships he fosters are a valuable use of each participant’s time. He doesn’t simply hand out phone numbers to his volunteers but instead offers a number of suggested icebreakers as a way to quickly find common ground between twentysomethings and eightysomethings. Brandt’s goal is to ensure that these friendships last. He envisions a future in which these elders and underclassmen are still calling each other, long after the pandemic.
“As these relationships have been growing, [our students] have forgotten that this is a volunteer exercise,” he says. “It feels like this is just a great person that they happened to meet. I’ve heard that once it’s safe, in addition to the phone calls, some volunteers hope to meet their [senior] in person.”
That’s one of the most important points for Perissinotto. Since many of these programs are new, there aren’t any studies yet that prove a correlation between check-in calls and improved outcomes for seniors. That’s why she believes that we can’t let phone calls permanently replace good old-fashioned person-to-person contact with seniors once the pandemic is over.
“I think that there’s a tendency to do what is easy and convenient out of necessity. I think we need to understand, do these programs work and for whom,” she says. “We also need to make sure that this isn’t a replacement for in-person contact. There’s this tendency to want to do everything digitally, but what about real human connection?”
Recognizing who needs that connection most is perhaps one of the unlikely awakenings of self-isolation. Pence says the calls she’s making will completely change her link to the patrons of her senior center. She was friendly with many of them before, but not like this, she says. There’s a new closeness in the air, even during life under a stay-at-home mandate.
“I hear stories from their lives, and I talk about my own life,” she says. “I feel like I’m talking to a friend, not a participant. I was doing my job before this pandemic. I didn’t have the time to have a lengthy conversation with them.”
Daniels takes it a step further. As far as she’s concerned, she’s going to have 40 new friends when she steps out of isolation in Lawton, Oklahoma.
“I talk to people and I say, ‘I can’t wait ‘til we can meet!’” she says. “And you’re more than just a voice on the phone.”
Luke Winkie is a reporter from San Diego. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.