“It takes just one person to make a difference, two to make friends,” said Jody Vail, human resources-volunteer director at Eastern Area Agency on Aging.
Vail was citing the motto of Phone Friends, a program of EAAA that links a volunteer with an older person who is homebound or looking for a new friend, and is willing to engage in regular phone visits.
The call recipients are matched with volunteers who live in the same area and share similar interests.
“We do interviews with both parties to increase the probability of compatibility,” said Vail.
Anyone age 18 and older can be a phone friend, but most are seniors. Receivers of the calls must be at least 60.
Some past volunteers have been 80 to 90 years old, and the oldest call receiver was 98. This program really knows no age boundaries, just as with typical friendships — which is really the crux of the program.
Being a phone friend has few requirements. Of course, you must have a telephone and the time to chat, and be willing to commit to a weekly call. The call times are mutually agreed upon by the volunteer and the recipient, and everything said during the calls is strictly confidential.
Volunteers have training opportunities to learn communication skills such as asking open-ended questions to encourage conversation, and active listening — which is “identifying feelings and summarizing what you have heard,” said Vail.
Active listening can help volunteers understand and clarify what their phone friend is saying, she adds. It takes a little more effort to “read” a person over the phone because facial expressions and body language are unseen.
“The callers must have compassion,” said Vail, “and a sense of humor helps. Ultimately, we think that these people will become friends and everyone will benefit.”
The program is perfect for individuals who would like to volunteer their time but have health problems or are virtually homebound themselves, she said.
While the volunteer and recipient may consider themselves close friends, they usually don’t meet. And while getting together is not forbidden, it is discouraged.
“This is really a phone program and we like to keep it that way if possible,” said Vail. “Some volunteers and recipients have elected to meet and do things together such as shopping or having lunch. And that’s fine, but it is not a part of the program.”
Sometimes, however, they meet by accident. One woman went to her doctor’s office and overheard a couple of ladies talking.
“I know that voice,” she exclaimed, and hurriedly asked the woman’s name. She was pleasantly surprised to meet her phone friend face to face.
Vail is quick to explain that this is not a counseling or “checking in” service. It is purely a friendship service.
“Our goal is to provide a friend for an older person who may be lonely while helping someone feel useful by volunteering,” she said. “It is just a way to keep the elderly connected and not isolated.”
Anyone interested in becoming a Phone Friends volunteer should call Vail at 992-0142.
“We are looking for people with the gift of gab who are eager to chat with seniors,” she said. “And any senior who would like to receive a friendly phone call should contact me as well.”
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Get your red pen out and mark your calendars now for the Senior Connections Expo to be held 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursday, May 14, at Spectacular Event Center, Bangor. The expo is sure to please seniors and nonseniors alike. More information will come your way as we get closer, so watch this space.
Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. E-mail Higgins Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, toll-free 800-432-7812, e-mail email@example.com or log on EAAA.org. TTY 992-0150.