When the COVID-19 pandemic left many people feeling disconnected from their neighbors and family members, the elderly population was hit the hardest, says Suzanne Washington, chief executive officer for Meals on Wheels People.
That social isolation and accompanying loneliness has been traced back to an increased risk for chronic conditions, like dementia, strokes and coronary artery disease, according to the Journal of Ahima, a publication of the American Health Information Management Association.
To address that problem, employees of Meals on Wheels People created a new program, called Friendly Chats, about a year ago to further their core mission aimed at reducing isolation for older adults.
Through the program, hundreds of volunteers make calls to the organization’s clients for weekly, or sometimes daily, conversations.
“We have been working on different ways to reach out to people and make sure when we’re not delivering meals and can’t be at their door all the time, that we have other means to connect with them,” Washington said.
Volunteers have made about 100,000 calls over the course of a year to residents in Clark, Multnomah and Washington counties, she said.
Volunteers like Lorrayne Guild found the experience to be uplifting on her end as well.
At first, Guild received meals from the nonprofit after she underwent hip surgery in December of 2017. Guild said she discontinued the delivery service because she plans to sell her home of 44 years to move into assisted living.
Guild learned about the Friendly Chats program through word of mouth. Her only regret is that she didn’t start sooner.
Since her husband’s death 12 years ago, Guild has lived alone.
Guild, a Clark County resident of 65 years, attended Clark College for a year after graduating from high school in Northern California. Three children and 34 years later, she finished her associate’s degree from the same college.
The people she meets through the program come from all walks of life and various careers.
One conversation led Guild and a client to discover they had grown up about 35 miles away from each other in California. She’s met several other “Californian transplants” through her experience.
“We don’t realize if we’re active and able to go out, that others sit at home and can be so isolated and so lonely, even a five to 10-minute phone call would be an uplift for them throughout the day,” Guild said.
Sometimes she will recognize a name from two or three weeks prior and the conversation picks up where they left off. Talks often meander through various topics, like a person’s favorite TV show, to the weather and gardening.
The calls can last anywhere from five minutes to 45 minutes, Guild said.
Sometimes the conversations aren’t as joyful, she said. One resident, in particular, called the Friendly Chats program just hours after her mother died. Others have called about the death of a spouse.
“I know what a shock it is to lose a parent or a spouse,” Guild said. “I feel encouragement goes a long way during that period of grief.”
A virtual, 45-minute training session is required before volunteering. Participants can sign up on the Meals on Wheels People website under the “volunteer” tab.
The training discusses how to use Zoom, an online meeting platform, and how to answer common questions from clients.
“My instructor was an excellent teacher,” Guild said. “I asked many, many questions. But after about the second or third day of calling, I thought ‘wow, this is something really great for me to get into.’”
In addition to Friendly Chats, the nonprofit’s volunteers also do wellness check calls, where people will check in with senior clients by phone.
Calls can be made anytime between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Those interested must sign up for a volunteer orientation to take part in wellness checks through the Meals on Wheels People website.
Friendly Chats volunteers call clients between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Because of the increased demand for services, Meals on Wheels People encourages donations through its website.
“We’re still recruiting folks who want to volunteer to do Friendly Chat calls,” Washington said. “We would love to get more people signed up.”