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Friendly Calls program seeks to address isolation

Serino’s ultimate goal is for participants and callers in the program to develop long-term friendships outside of the bounds of the eight-week structure.

POUGHKEEPSIE —  The Dutchess County Office for the Aging (OFA) has put out a call for volunteers and participants alike to sign up for the newly implemented Friendly Calls program. The program, a New York State Office for the Aging template, is designed to combat senior isolation through a series of eight weekly, 20-to-30-minutes-long phone conversations with volunteer callers.

Getting its start at the end of January, the program has developed quickly in Dutchess County, with 32 volunteers currently making calls to 40 participants. Sue Serino, who has been working as a communications specialist at OFA and recently launched a campaign for Dutchess County executive, was instrumental in the implementation of Friendly Calls. She hopes, through the program, to reach those seniors in the region at risk of isolation.

“There are around 45,000 seniors who live in Dutchess County, and many are from a generation where it’s harder, culturally, for them to ask for help. So we’re also hoping to reach caregivers, or family members, who might be able to look at the program and help those seniors at risk get some additional social contact.”

Listing the pandemic as a driving force behind an uptick in senior isolation, as well as the region’s lack of public transportation, Serino’s ultimate goal is for participants and callers in the program to develop long-term friendships outside of the bounds of the eight-week structure.

“One of our first callers, Rita, is in her 80s, and was connected with a woman in her 90s.  The other day she let us know that she’s picking up Louise to get lunch together, which just really warmed my heart.”

Volunteers must be over age 18 to participate and can expect to receive trainings on active listening, communicating expectations and boundaries, and tactics for having engaging conversations and making friends over the phone. If, at the end of the eight weeks, both parties express interest, the program can be extended.

That social isolation and loneliness represent serious health risks for seniors is both well-established and still being studied. Of the physical and mental health risks associated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists a 50% increased risk of dementia, an increased risk of premature death on par with smoking and obesity, and a 29% increased risk of developing heart disease as some of the more deadly. This burden is not felt equally across senior populations — the CDC notes that immigrant and LGBTQ+ seniors are at higher risk than their peers, stating:

“First-generation immigrants experience stressors that can increase their social isolation, such as language barriers, differences in community, family dynamics, and new relationships that lack depth or history, the report states. Similarly, gay, lesbian, and bisexual populations tend to have more loneliness than their heterosexual peers because of stigma, discrimination, and barriers to care.”

Loneliness is defined by the National Institute for Aging as “the distressed feeling of being alone or separated,” whereas social isolation is the “lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly.” Though related, these experiences do not always lead to one another — some people are able to live fully and happily with fewer social connections, and feelings of loneliness can evolve regardless of how social a person may be.

If you or an older adult in your life needs support or feels isolated, contact the NY Connects hotline at 1-800-342-9871 for one-stop access to free, objective and comprehensive information and assistance at the local level. You can also reach your county office for the aging by using NYSOFA’s online directory, accessible at https://aging.ny.gov/local-offices.

The Dutchess County Office for the Aging will hold an information session for those interested in participating or volunteering in the Friendly Calls program on Monday, March 6, at the Poughkeepsie Friendship Center, 114 Delafield St. Those interested can also contact OFA during business hours 845-0486-2555 or reach out to Serino’s office at 845-486-2575.

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