The Power of a Phone Call: Overcoming Senior Loneliness with Help from the Friendship Line

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Our connections to one another are what bind us to life, yet for older and disabled adults these connections tend to disappear. The Friendship Line at the Institute on Aging is the nation’s only 24-hour, toll-free hotline for these at-risk individuals. Our trained staff and volunteers make and receive calls to and from clients who are either in crisis or just in need of a friend. Because isolation can lead to depression and even suicide, these calls save lives, reduce suffering, and decrease healthcare costs. For many of our clients, the voice at the other end of the Friendship Line is the connection they never expected to have – and at a time when they need it most. Take a look at the moving stories below, both told from the perspective of our compassionate volunteers.

Senior loneliness: Mark’s story

Mark began calling the Friendship Line about six years ago, after a traumatic brain injury left him barely able to speak and walk. He was in his late sixties, a recently retired professional who’d been successful and closely connected to people in his work world.

His speech was halting and he had to hunt for words, but his message was clear: he talked about how he wanted to die. He had a wife he loved and an adult child, but he didn’t want to be a burden to them. He insisted he wasn’t actively suicidal, just depressed, but he was not interested in therapy.

I mostly listened and asked questions about his life. Mark told stories about growing up, his large family, and the people he’d met. Every week his mood improved, as did his speech. He began to get in contact with people from his past and form new connections. He would tell me about these old friends and other activities he’d begun to incorporate into his life. Mark still calls almost every day and talks to a variety of volunteers. He feels like the Friendship Line helped him during a very dark time, giving him a sense that he was not alone.

Senior loneliness: Mary’s story

Mary was in her eighties when I first came to the Friendship Line. She lived alone, and aside from her two cats and occasional calls from a niece on the East coast, she was utterly isolated. Usually the Friendship Line caller was the only living being she talked to all day – besides her cats.

She suffered from severe lung disease that made it hard for her to move around without an oxygen tank, and also had agoraphobia that had kept her mostly confined to her house. She had a deep, infectious laugh that rattled through the phone on every conversation. And she loved, of all things, old horror movies.

Her lung condition worsened and she eventually had a caregiver for a few hours each day. Before the caregiver left in the late afternoon, she would tuck Mary into bed. There, Mary would wait for the Friendship Line calls, which came every day at the same time.

Her voice brightened every time she talked to a Friendship Line volunteer. She would often say, “I love you, honey, and I wish I could give you a big hug.”

Why the Friendship Line is crucial in addressing senior loneliness

Often, our society does not rise to the challenge of helping older adults during the latter stages of their lives. Many times, their contributions and perspectives are not valued, and go unremarked. In fact, Friendship Line clients sometimes tell us they feel invisible – that is depth of their isolation.

That’s why the Friendship Line is passionate about providing this vital service to older adults, offering them connection and compassion, or just support as they struggle with depression, anxiety, loss, and more. It’s a small enough service to give – only ten or fifteen minutes of conversation. However, every one of our volunteers says the same thing: they get more out of listening to and learning from clients than they could ever hope to give.

Together we can ensure that the Friendship Line remains open 24/7, and there will always be a friend at the other end of the line. Please consider a contribution to support Friendship Line at IndieGoGo. Institute on Aging is grateful for whatever you can give and appreciate you sharing this link with your friends and colleagues.

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