Q: I live in a small rural community with a population of less than 1,200 residents. I love our little town, but know that some elders who live in the “country” may not have someone to talk to or connect with if they need help. Years ago I lived in the Merrimack Valley and remember there were telephone reassurance programs available. I mentioned this in my church, and our mission committee wants to learn more about this program. Could you give us some things to think about in starting up this service?
A: Individuals living alone may not necessarily identify as being lonely even though they may be isolated. But I appreciate your concerns, as there have been some studies that suggest the impact of isolation and loneliness on health and mortality are of the same “order of magnitude as such risk factors as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.” And of course there is also the concern of someone isolated who has an accident or medical emergency and can’t get to a phone.
Telephone reassurance programs have numerous benefits. The obvious is the daily contact checking on a person’s overall well-being. This is also a way to measure if there are other services the person could benefit from by judging comments they may make during the conversation. In a small town that may have limited resources this could be an excellent program to offer to older or disabled individuals who are living alone.
There are several key factors in starting the program. First is the ability to recruit volunteers who are willing to commit to the time involved. Background checks on potential volunteers should be required. Training and ongoing support of the volunteers is essential to emphasize confidentiality, appropriate limit setting in this role and what actions to take if a real concern is detected. Other points to consider are the hours the program will run. Make every effort to have an emergency contact for those enrolled in the program if no one can be reached at the home.
It may be an option to contact people by email if they have that capacity, cellphone or landline. The consumer should select a time of day to be called whenever possible. If the person is not going to be home at the time of scheduled call they should be strongly encouraged to notify the volunteer or the program director.
I would encourage you to contact existing telephone reassurance programs in other areas to find what has worked well for them or the roadblocks they have encountered.
Are you struggling caring for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our staff is available for a no-cost consultation, set up at your convenience, to help guide you through your caregiving experience. For more details or to schedule an appointment, please call 800-892-0890.
Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Please direct your correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc., Age Information Department, 280 Merrimack Street, Suite 400, Lawrence, MA 01843. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services.