The Gift of Experience, The Gift of Compassion: Seniors Helping Seniors on the Friendship Line

Friendship Line IOA Tim Riel Interview Issa looked out her window. It was a typical San Francisco December, cold and with a persistent fog, one of those clingy ones that, Issa thought, was the only thing left. When she was younger, this kind of day thrilled her. It was exciting to walk in the fog with Harold, when you could almost imagine yourself alone in the city.

But now, she felt truly alone. Harold had died nearly ten years ago, and the intervening decade found her more and more isolated, partly by unconscious choice, and partly by the effects of time on long friendships. This is not, she thought, a way to live: with no one to talk with except occasional interactions with a few younger people in her building, who would listen, but who didn’t understand. How could they? Without the gifts and problems of age, they didn’t seem to have a mutual language.

There are many people in the Bay Area, and around the country, like Issa. People who feel there is no one who has felt what they have. And that’s where the Friendship Line at Institute of Aging (IOA) comes in. This life-saving number provides comfort, empathy, compassion, and genuine friendship to older adults who call in. Perhaps most remarkably, many of the volunteers are seniors themselves.

This connection makes a huge difference, and helps further IOA’s mission of helping older adults age surrounded by love. Tim Riel, Volunteer Coordinator at the Friendship Line, has seen first-hand the impact of talking to a loving and compassionate voice. “To see how a caller goes from sad and depressed to laughing,” he told us, and “to change the outlook of someone’s life for the day” is a true tribute to their work.

The Friendship Line Begins with Volunteers

It is a special kind of person who volunteers to listen to and help someone through some of their worst days. Inspiringly, IOA is full of these individuals. This position isn’t, of course, just a matter of sitting down and getting on the phone. Tim explains that, due to the varied types of calls and the need to handle them correctly, volunteers undergo extensive training.

“All volunteers are trained to handle any type of call that comes in,” he says. “There are two full-day trainings on Saturdays, on active listening, difficult callers, ageism, disability, cultural competence, and more—there’s a lot they go over to get them confident. Topics also include elder abuse and suicide risk assessment, and training is ongoing throughout the year. All trainees get to have an experience that lets them relate to older adults and the things they go through.”

The things callers go through are tragic in their predictability. Loneliness, isolation, depression. The feeling that there is no one left to talk to. Even some who have a social circle feel even more alone whenever they aren’t in that circle. The fear that it is gone, and the fear that it won’t come back, can exacerbate the feelings of loneliness. Volunteers are trained to handle that, and more.

It is a challenging thing to do. Tim talks about how there have to be rules to make sure that a caller doesn’t depend too much on any specific volunteer. Because much of the work is done in shifts, some regulars call at predictable times and speak to the same person. While generating a friendship is important, and rapport is vital, it can be devastating and terrifying for the caller if their regular friend isn’t there.

It can be scary for the volunteer as well, especially if the caller expresses thoughts on suicide. Tim emphasizes the role of training, and the need to remember that the older adult is calling for a reason—to reach out to someone. “I remind them,” Tim says, “that if someone is calling the line and they are in crisis, they are calling because they do want help. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t call.”

Seniors Helping Seniors

Older adults, Tim explains, often turn out to be the best volunteers. “Many callers prefer to talk to older adults,” he says, explaining that “the lived experience that older adult volunteers have” can make an enormous amount of difference.

After all, many of the older adult volunteers have gone through the same experiences. It isn’t just that they remember the same songs or can relate to the challenges and blessings of aging, but that many of them have felt the same loneliness. They’ve felt the same listlessness, the same sadness, and the same lack of purpose that too often accompanies life once society has decided they are no longer relevant.

Indeed, that’s another one of the ancillary benefits of volunteering—the older adult volunteers aren’t just helping callers, they are also helping themselves. Volunteering gives them that sense of purpose that is too often missing, and gives them a chance to be an important part of many people’s lives.

Not only that, but they also help the younger volunteers, who have all the compassion and often the education, but not (and through no fault of their own) the experience. As Tim says, “Our senior volunteers have lived through the challenges or can recognize them more fully, which is why they do the experiential part of the training, so that younger volunteers can offer compassion and empathy even if they can’t actually relate.”

Volunteering to Make a Difference

Volunteering at the Friendship Line can be challenging, but more than that it’s rewarding. It is emotionally fulfilling to help those in need, of course, but IOA also recognizes the challenges involved in such emotionally taxing work, and wants to take care of those who give so much.

Some of the benefits volunteers enjoy include:

  • Sporadic movie showings in our auditorium
  • Discounts at local businesses (thank you, community!)
  • Weekly yoga to reduce stress
  • Social gatherings, which can range from kickball to bingo
  • Yearly appreciation events

But at the end of the day, volunteers gather to help people because they know that, within all of us, there is the potential for feeling alone. We all might feel cut adrift from our lives, a combination of circumstance and society, and we all might need to hear a voice on the other end saying, simply: I hear you. That connection is the heart of a community. That strength comes from everyone.

If you’re interested in volunteering, there is always room. Tim stresses that, “We are definitely in need of volunteers, specifically during holiday shifts, when callers are more depressed than usual. People are used to having a support circle, but may not have that anymore, and they call more often during the holidays. So we can really use help then.”

If you feel moved to volunteer for the Friendship Line, connect with IOA and Tim Riel to explore your training and volunteering options.  

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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