When her husband died 16 years ago, Virginia "Scotty" Scattarelli said the funeral home was the only place she could find that provided grief counseling.
Finding that kind of help is easier these days, Scattarelli said, thanks to the Senior LinkAge Line, Minnesota's "one stop shop" operated by the state's Board on Aging.
Created in 1998, the LinkAge Line originally provided a toll-free phone number to help older Minnesotans with Medicare and long-term care options. In September the mission was expanded to provide contacts at most state agencies, and the LinkAge Line logs more than 500 calls a day.
The goal, said Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL, "is that everybody will be met with a real live voice and that someone will stay with them until their problem is solved." An operator remains on the line and connects callers to an expert when necessary.
AARP Minnesota is not directly involved in running the LinkAge Line, but "we encourage all of our members who are interested to sign up as LinkAge Line volunteers," said Michelle Kimball, AARP Minnesota state director. "It is a great way to give back."
In recent years, the LinkAge Line has received about 120,000 calls annually. It's on track to get about 140,000 calls by the end of 2011, said Krista Boston, director of consumer assistance programs for the Board on Aging. She attributed the increase to expanded services, an influx of boomers and questions about the federal health care law.
Scattarelli, 86, is a Richfield retiree who coordinates 50 other volunteers at AARP Minnesota's information center at the Mall of America. She said the expanded LinkAge Line has become the leading information resource for the AARP volunteers who handle questions at the information center.
Older people in Minnesota now have two options when they want information on an array of topics from long-term care to transportation: the toll-free LinkAge Line (1-800-333-2433) or the Senior Link page on the 10-year-old online information service, MinnesotaHelp.info. The website has answers to many questions Minnesota's older residents might ask but without the personal touch of the operators at the LinkAge Line.
For example, those seeking grief counseling — something Scattarelli couldn't find 16 years ago — can now either call the LinkAge Line or visit MinnesotaHelp.info. Searching the Senior Link page on the website yields a list of dozens of organizations that specialize in grief counseling, ranging from faith-based groups to veterans counseling.
More state agencies involved
During the months leading up to the September launch of the expanded LinkAge Line, major state agencies, such as the Department of Labor and Industry, were asked to designate representatives to handle referrals.
"We even got involvement by the Department of Corrections, which was initially surprising," said Jean Wood, executive director of the Board on Aging. But "it made a lot of sense, since the families of older people transitioning out of prison may need help with things like the selection of a Medicare Part D plan."
Calls to the LinkAge Line are routed to the closest of seven regional call centers, which operate from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Most calls are received by one of 25 full-time staff members, though about a dozen volunteer operators also work at the busiest centers.
About 300 other volunteers provide one-on-one counseling, speak to community organizations and perform office clerical work. All volunteers receive 18 hours of training.
Boston said assignments are tailored to the volunteer's experience, interests and schedules. Some volunteers even work out of their homes, she said.
To volunteer, visit the Senior Link volunteer page on MinnesotaHelp.info or call the Senior LinkAge line at 1-800-333-2433.
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David Hawley is a writer living in Edina, Minn.