Cure for the Pandemic Blues Only a Call Away
BY CALLEY BLISS
86-year-old Don Elias of Fridley, Minnesota lost his wife to Alzheimer’s four years ago and he’s not afraid to admit it—sometimes he gets a little lonely.
“Towards the later stages of the pandemic I’ve started going stir crazy,” Elias explains. “Being alone in this pandemic is ugly, you know?”
Yet for the past couple of months, Elias gets a little less lonely come Friday mornings, because that’s when he’s got a standing date, of sorts, with 45-year-old Julie Munger, a fellow Twin Cities resident. It’s a friendly phone date, courtesy of the Minnesota-based non-profit Little Brothers — Friends of The Elderly (LBFE).
Primed with new jokes to share each week, the two share a chat that usually lasts about 30 minutes. Elias describes their calls as “kind of a remarkable conversation” and says he and Munger talk “about life and love and whatever else there is, you know?”
“I like his jokes! They help me feel better too,” Munger says. Quarantines and lockdowns have taken a toll on her spirits, as well. “I miss the human interaction so this has been nice,” says Munger, a volunteer phone staffer with (LBFE).
Zoom and FaceTime have kept many people connected during the pandemic but, for older adults, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned phone call. (Stock photo)
Thanks in part to a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, LBFE leaders have created a safe and low-tech solution to address the COVID-exacerbated loneliness issue among older adults; they call it “Coffee Talk.” It’s a volunteer-staffed call-in program in which participants connect with a compassionate listener using a technology that they easily understand: their telephone. They can make the call anonymously, if they wish, and can call as often as they want or need.
“The power of coaxing someone out of loneliness, and changing their life, happens in that personal connection,” says LBFE Director of Communications and Philanthropy Mike Weiner.
Even in pre-pandemic times, finding ways to keep older adults socially connected was a challenge for organizations like LBFE. The pandemic has made it even tougher because many elders, retired from the workforce and having little to no knowledge or understanding of how to use Zoom, for example, have been left in a giant socially-distanced black hole, of sorts.
“With Coffee Talk, we really wanted to lower the barrier [to communication] and just meet the need where it is,” Weiner explains. “There’s a lot of shame and stigma that goes along with loneliness, and it’s hard to ask for help. People are prideful. But if you can pick up your own phone in your own home and just call somebody…and you know that the person on the other end of the line is going to be compassionate, and going to listen and that they’re probably going have a mother or father or grandparent or somebody that makes them want to do this kind of thing, it takes some of the shame away.”
Weiner says that aside from friendly conversation, callers can get access to crucial information, support resources, and opportunities to connect with others through other LBFE programs.
(Left) Don Elias and (Right) Julie Munger have become phone pals thanks to Little Brothers — Friends of The Elderly’s “Coffee Talk” program.
(Left) Mike Weiner and (Right) Ann Fosco oversee LBFE’s “Coffee Talk” program.
Munger says most callers are struggling, frustrated that even vaccinations haven’t necessarily ended safety restrictions yet, or guaranteed protected health. “It’s especially tough right now because everyone is sick of being cooped up, and it feels like the end is close, but then these variants are happening, so it’s scary,” Munger explains.
She continues, “I was just on [the phone] with a woman who is very frustrated and sick of feeling tied to her house, but is also scared to go out. It’s just a very tough time, especially for older folks because now they’re feeling freedom with the vaccine, but you know, the rest of us haven’t all caught up so many are still stuck at home.”
Many of the LBFE volunteers have also had experiences with loneliness themselves. “I wanted to do something that would just make me feel more connected with people,” Munger explains. “I can relate to people that feel disappointment and loneliness. So it’s been kind of a nice win-win.”
The nine current Coffee Talk volunteers were selected from more than 450 people who signed up with LBFE. “For this pilot year, the volunteers who answer [the phones for] Coffee Talk were already a part of LBFE, were knowledgeable about older adult issues, and were really top-notch volunteers,” says Ann Fosco, LBFE’s Community Impact Director.
Additional training included tips on active listening, and suggestions for conversation starters. Then Fosco guided the volunteers through some practice calls.
Most callers are over the age of 70 and hail from cities and towns throughout Minnesota, but the program is marketed, simply, to “older adults”—meaning no caller is turned away, even if they’re out-of-state.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, elder loneliness affects up to a quarter of all adults over the age of 65, increasing the risk of health conditions ranging from heart disease and stroke to dementia. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine found that social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk rivaling smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Coffee Talk is an off-shoot of another LBFE creation called “Elder Friends Phone Companions.” That program originally started as a crisis intervention service, matching self-identified socially isolated older adults with volunteers, based on criteria like shared interests, language, or gender. The volunteers check in on the elders regularly, and build a relationship with them over time.
Launched in early February, LBFE says about five callers connect through Coffee Talk every day. Older adults interested in making a call to Coffee Talk can use the toll-free number 877-238-2282; those in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area can dial 612-746-0728. Volunteers and staff work the Coffee Talk phone lines from 8 am to 12 noon, Monday through Friday.
For more information about Little Brothers — Friends of the Elderly and Coffee Talk, click here.
With the pandemic now entering its 15th month in the U.S., Don Elias simply says he’s grateful for being able to make new acquaintances to share his life with, even if they’re just over the phone. “We just kinda chat,” he explains, “you know, like friends do.”
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