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How a hotline for seniors became a tool to control coronavirus

How a hotline for seniors became a tool to control coronavirus

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(Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)

From a motel room in Monterey County, California, a 67-year-old homeless man dials a familiar number to relieve the loneliness he feels after years of living on busy streets.

In San Francisco, an 89-year-old woman who cares for her 95-year-old sister tells a listener on the phone that she longs to go back to the routine and guidance offered at her senior center.

In Los Angeles, a 78-year-old man with diabetes and depression calls to share his fears that he may lose his affordable housing.

Isolation, anxiety and despair have intensified among older adults during a pandemic that has forced them to stay home. The anguish can be measured by calls to the state’s hotline for older adults and people with disabilities, which have jumped by 30% in recent months.  Friendship Line California, which has provided a friendly ear to the lonely since 1973, has now become a strategy to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“Making it easy for all adults to dial the ‘Friendship Line’ any time for a friendly conversation, when feeling a little lonely, or when in crisis, will help Californians continue to stay home, stay healthy, and stay connected in the tough and uncertain months ahead,” Kim McCoy Wade, the director of the Department of Aging, said in a letter to the state’s Area Agencies on Aging.

The toll-free 24-hour line is run by trained volunteers. Before the pandemic, callers typically lived in the Bay Area and turned to the line out of loneliness or grief after loved ones died. Hoping to reach more people in a time of immense need, the Department of Aging in April allocated $1 million from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to expand the line through August. People now phone in from across the state.

Even as states have lifted shelter-in-place orders, older adults are advised to stay home to protect their health. That guidance may keep them from contracting the virus, but months of confinement and anxiety can have a devastating impact on their mental health, said Preston Burnes, vice president of strategic partnerships at the Institute on Aging, which operates the Friendship Line.

“A lot of us are experiencing now what these seniors have been feeling for years,” Burnes said. “Fear of isolation, of what’s going on around them. In this current context, I hope we’re developing empathy for what this population needs.”

Burnes acknowledged the line could be improved. For starters, it takes calls only in English.

Lourdes Guerrero, an adjunct assistant professor who specializes in geriatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said a call-in line is particularly valuable now that so much social life and many support services have moved to digital platforms.

“We still have a large base of adults who are not tech-savvy and who still rely on the phone,” she said. “They hear about apps and the internet, but nobody really walks them through it.”  

But, she said, there is little knowledge that the Friendship Line exists. To reach the state’s most vulnerable adults, including immigrants, the service must be available in more languages and promoted through community leaders and organizations.

“A lot of us are experiencing now what these seniors have been feeling for years. Fear of isolation, of what’s going on around them. In this current context, I hope we’re developing empathy for what this population needs.”

“Thinking about vulnerable communities, thinking about the heated political climate we’re living in, people may be distrustful of a line that a trusted person or source may not have endorsed,” Guerrero said. “There are all kinds of questions I can see being raised: How is the line any different than a scammer line? Will I be billed? Will they report me if I use my name? They would really need a spokesperson from that community that gives them information.”

Calls to the Friendship Line aren’t the only measure of need among older adults. In Los Angeles County, senior adult meal deliveries rose from an average 190,000 a month before the pandemic to 358,000 in April, said Miguel Robleto, human services administrator for the Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services. The increase exposed weaknesses in programming for senior residents.

“One of the common things I’ve heard with our providers is they found that seniors were not prepared for an emergency,” Robleto said. “We’re talking about having enough for common meals. How would (older adults) go about surviving in an emergency if someone couldn’t get to them in a day or two? Maybe we need to expand those programs.”

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of the Social Bridging Project, a network of 1,000 volunteer callers who will reach out to older adults who are isolating at home. Operated under Listos California, the state’s emergency preparedness campaign, the program was tested in San Francisco. It will expand to 16 counties this month, with the goal of checking in on thousands of people and connecting them with resources if needed, said Karen Baker, architect and co-chair of Listos California. Volunteers will be from diverse backgrounds and speak several languages, she added.

Meanwhile, callers to the Friendship Line seem grateful for the service, said Mia Grigg, senior director of the program. She often thinks of the conversations she’s had, including one with a homeless veteran who was placed in a motel room to keep him safe during the pandemic. He called the Friendship Line because he missed the social interaction of the streets.

“He talked about that immense loss of human connection,” Grigg said. “The last thing he left us with was, ‘You guys have become my family. You are what helps me get out of bed each day. You are what part of what keeps me going each day.’”

Just knowing someone is there to listen can be a powerful tonic, Grigg said.

“The vast majority call because they need to be heard. They need to say what is really on their minds.”

The toll-free Friendship Line California is at 1-888-670-1360.


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Avoid alcohol, any kind of drugs. Learn some stress management process. Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse.


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