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Photo by Debra Downey

Photo by Debra Downey

Each Monday at 10 a.m., Annette Gruber, 86, left, has a friendly chat with a volunteer caller like Sheilagh Rathwell. The Friendly Calling Program was launched in 2008 to allow seniors to remain independent in their homes and stay connected to their communities.

Making life a little brighter

Friendly Calling program matches volunteers with community seniors>

By Debra Downey, Senior Editor

The Friendly Calling Program is a simple concept that is having a profound impact on the lives of seniors, their families and volunteer callers.

The program was launched in August 2008 as part of Ontario’s Aging at Home Strategy to allow seniors to remain independent in their homes and stay connected to their communities.

Almost four years after its inception, the average number of minutes spent on the phone each month has skyrocketed to 5,234, or 87 hours, each month. The average number of calls is 246.

Annette Gruber, 86, is one of the seniors who receives a regular phone call. Gruber grew up in Saskatchewan, before her parents, with their five children in tow, moved to the Hamilton area. She married twice and worked in various office jobs, but was never blessed with children. In her younger days, Gruber did some volunteering of her own with the MS Society and Canadian Cancer Society, before health challenges pretty much confined her to her apartment.

Every Monday morning at 10 a.m., Gruber’s telephone rings. Her friendly caller is of Ukrainian descent, so the two enjoy stories from the past and funny tales about their lives.

“It’s important to have encouragement to carry on and do the best you can because you can have good days and bad days,” said Gruber. “I don’t want to go into care if I can help it. I’m too independent for that.”

Gruber is the treasurer of her building’s residents’ group and uses the computer to create posters for birthday teas and other special events.

The affable octogenarian was familiar to Dundas Community Services — which oversees the Friendly Calling program in the Hamilton area — because she used other services like Meals on Wheels and assisted transportation, and received support from a senior’s worker.

In September 2010, Gruber joined the Friendly Calling program at the suggestion of the friendly folks at DCS. They sensed a change Gruber’s outlook on life.

“I was feeling depressed, because I used to be able to do that, that and that, and now I can’t do it anymore,” Gruber said.

The weekly phone call helped lift the depression, and with the support of DCS volunteers and staff, a close but unintrusive eye is kept on Gruber’s well-being.

Helaine Ortmann, co-ordinator of the Friendly Calling Program, said volunteer callers report back to DCS staff on specific data like the date and length of their calls, and the need or request for assistance in accessing other community support services.

“We think it’s a vital program,” said Ortmann. “It’s low cost, and on one level, it’s so simple, but on another level, it’s so profound in boosting the quality of life and having seniors feel connected to things and to other people. It’s very meaningful.”

Since its inception, 165 seniors and 130 volunteers have participated in Friendly Calling. The program aims to reduce isolation and loneliness, enhance dignity and safety, and provide social contact to support seniors aging at home. It also provides early intervention to help reduce costs to the health-care system.

“The calls are preventative,” said Ortmann. “If the senior is not there at a certain date or time, it could be cause for concern. We have next-of-kin and emergency contacts and work very much as a team.”

Volunteers are trained by DCS and matched to community seniors who may have similar interests. Volunteers call seniors on their preferred day and time, initiate a conversation, lend a friendly ear and share information about community activities from a DCS-produced calendar.

The average length of each call is roughly 23 minutes. The median age of the seniors who receive a call is 84.

Sheilagh Rathwell joined the Friendly Calling program in December 2008 as a volunteer caller. These days, she makes three friendly calls each week to three different seniors, one of whom is both hearing and visually impaired.

During her conversations, Rathwell tries to find topics that interest each individual senior, like crock-pot cooking, nutrition, birds and books.

At first, getting one of the seniors to talk was like “pulling teeth.” Rathwell now finds it difficult to get off the phone as the length of the call has climbed to more than 15 minutes. Rathwell doesn’t mind in the least.

“I’m there for them. If the person is getting something out of it, I just let them continue. It’s their time, not mine,” said Rathwell, adding she gets a great deal of satisfaction in giving back to the community and knowing she has made someone else’s life a little brighter.

Ortmann said the weekly phone calls are all about building trust.

“Sometimes it’s love at first call and sometimes it takes a while to get to know each other,” she said.

For more information on the Friendly Calling program, call Dundas Community Services at 905-627-5461. Volunteers are always welcome, and the program is open to seniors throughout the Hamilton area.

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