The voices come from across the Bay Area. Some are regulars, having called before, their trembling voices becoming familiar, their fears and loneliness becoming known. Some are voices reaching out for the first time—their pain and sadness overtaking them, they strike out in the darkness looking for something to hold onto and hoping to find someone who will listen, and who will care.
And when those hands reach out, they are held by the volunteers at IOA’s Friendship Line. They’re held by people like Marilyn and Linda, retired older adults who have taken it upon themselves to alleviate some of the isolation that too often becomes an accepted part of aging. Both retired health care professionals, they’ve continued to live out their spirit of service and compassion by making a difference in the lives of older adults across the Bay Area—and across the country.
The Friendship Line is just that: it’s a way for people to hear that they are not alone, and to know that, in this world, there are people like Marilyn and Linda who care about them.
Helping Others Is a Life Calling
Many volunteers come to the Friendship Line tentatively, nervous about the challenges, having never really worked with people in extreme or challenging situations. That’s not the case with Linda or Marilyn.
Linda had been working as a geriatric social worker and was very familiar with the issues that older adults face. She’s also well-acquainted with the population of San Francisco—she’s lived in the same house in Twin Peaks since 1965, a vital part of her community.
Marilyn comes to the Friendship Line from a different side of life. A registered nurse until her retirement four years ago, she worked with newborns and premature births. It was literally as far from the issues of aging as one could get, but working with people who were scared and needed comfort was great preparation for working with older adults suffering from the same emotions.
Despite their backgrounds, both note the training was invaluable for them. Marilyn describes role-playing with staffers, and how talking to them helped to alleviate many of her fears. She had been worried about, as she describes it, her “habit of mumbling,” mentioning that friends joke with her about how she’s hard to hear on the phone sometimes. But, as she says, “It’s about active listening. Being engaged is the main point. Talking with other staff members helped me understand this—you don’t need to be a therapist.”
Linda echoes this. She was familiar with IOA, and knew of its director, Dr. Patrick Arbore, through her professional work. After volunteering at schools following her retirement, she “missed working in the geriatric field,” which led to her volunteering at the Friendship Line. She was worried that she wouldn’t “be adequately prepared to help someone who was actively suicidal,” and had the impression that would be a large part of her duties. But, through IOA’s excellent training, she came to recognize how broad the needs are—how, really, it comes down to just being there for someone.
Steering a Path Through Difficult Times
For Marilyn, one of the surprises of volunteering for the Friendship Line was understanding that she wasn’t there to fix everything. “Everybody initially wants to fix things with a toolbox—and throw a lifeline,” she says. But that isn’t always the best way to do things. “You’re not there to fix things,” Marilyn explains, “you’re there to help them find a way to fix things for themselves.”
After all, her training helped her realize that “the elderly have been through a lot, and you don’t get that way without learning skills on how to survive. They aren’t helpless. What works is to let them know you respect them, and that they still have the ability to solve their own problems.”
One of the benefits of having volunteers with Linda and Marilyn’s life experience is that they have first-hand knowledge of what an older adult may be going through. Everyone, throughout their lives, loses friends, feels alone, or wonders about their place in the world. This can happen to many people after they retire, after loved ones die, and after society seems to begin to devalue their inherent worth. For the caller on the other end, it’s especially helpful to know that the person they’re talking to doesn’t just care, but can actually offer true empathy.
Linda explains that while her training says she isn’t supposed to reveal too much about herself, “it’s a balancing act. It’s helpful for the caller to know that I am a senior, that I’ve been through a divorce, that I understand where they are coming from. It’s selectively helpful to share.” It helps the “lonely and isolated people” feel less of both emotions.
Making Each Day Better
Volunteering at IOA’s Friendship Line can be difficult. It can be challenging. Linda says that after a four-hour shift she is often, “Tired. Wiped out. It’s intense, doing this continually for four hours.” And Marilyn adds that every day can be a “mixed bag, some days it doesn’t feel like you helped, but you don’t know.” But there is always also hope. She continues with, “You never know. It may have been a turning point for someone.”
And that’s the whole point. We don’t know what will make someone feel better about themselves, or about their lives. There is rarely, if ever, a magic moment when the clouds part and the sun comes sparkling through a now-still sky—it’s more of an accumulation of kindness and compassion that helps rebuild a person’s desire to interact with the world, their energy for life, and their sense of self. Through the Friendship Line, they’re given the tools they need to be part of living again.
That, Linda acknowledges, is the role of the Friendship Line volunteers. “My MO is to empower the person I’m speaking with to make their own choices. I don’t give direct advice, but want them to think about things in a different way.” And making a genuine difference in someone’s life can be incredibly rewarding. Both women encourage other older adults to volunteer if they feel the calling. Linda says that there “should be a lot of senior volunteers. My cohorts have a lot to offer.”
At the Friendship Line, it goes both ways. The volunteers give succor and friendship to the callers, but are also part of a vital and loving community. Marilyn notes that “we support each other. We’re always talking, and we have similar worldviews,” a surplus of compassion, and “we share tips and information.” It’s a place where people are leaned on, but have others to help carry that weight.
In short, it’s a community of dedicated volunteers and caring, compassionate support staff built on an ever-expanding circle of empathy and love, centered around the idea that older adults are still a vital and cherished part of the world, that their lives have inherent meaning, and that they shouldn’t feel lost or alone or afraid or isolated. It’s about knowing there’s people who care about them, and who are there when needed, knowing that concern, that care, that love, that friendship, embodied in people like Linda and Marilyn—and maybe in you—is just a phone call away. It’s a line that ties us all together.