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A Friendly Voice to Help You Through Social Isolation

Hear from volunteers behind AARP's Friendly Voices call center and how they're helping others

screenshot of the a a r p community connections website

AARP

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

So the negative health consequences have often been talked about in the following terms, that prolonged isolation is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

 

Mike Ellison:

That’s AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson. She says that prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been issues for older adults since before the coronavirus pandemic. However, about two hundred fifty AARP volunteers -- and counting -- say that they might have a hopeful solution for people experiencing these hardships. And it’s as simple as picking up the phone.

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

We're a friendly voice to people who are lonely, want to connect, we want to show that we care...and they’re delighted with it.

 

Mike Ellison:

On today’s show, we’ll discuss the AARP Friendly Voice call line, and why it’s important and easy to reach out. That’s coming up next.

 

Mike Ellison:

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with an AARP Take on Today

 

Mike Ellison: Recently, AARP launched a new platform called AARP Community Connections. People who visit AARP Community Connections dot org can find local mutual aid groups, where everyday people support others in their area with things like picking up groceries or walking pets. Neighbors helping neighbors.

 

Here’s one of the creators of the site, AARP’s Andy Miller.

 

Andy Miller:

The pandemic, as it grew from city to city, state to state, we were trying to figure out a way to help people when they're stuck at home. When we learned about these mutual aid groups being formed throughout the country, we thought the best thing we could do would be to aggregate them and use our reach and the megaphone that we have to get the word out to people. Specifically, we know that people over the age of 50, really people over the age of 65, are stuck at home and they need to shelter in place and we wanted to make sure that should they need assistance there was a channel that they could find to reach out to people where they could find help.

 

Mike Ellison:

By the way, Community Connections is available for free in both English and Spanish, and the mutual aid group locator isn’t the only feature of the site. There’s a section for resources on staying informed, an online community discussion board and, of course, the AARP Friendly Voice call center. That’s where our guests come in.

 

Will Stoner:

AARP Friendly Voice is a virtual call center where AARP Volunteers are available to take live calls from individuals who are feeling isolated and lonely and also to make calls back to people who had filled out our web form or have left a message with us. Really, the purpose is to have just a nice chat and to make people feel more at ease with the current situation that we're in.

 

Mike Ellison:

That’s Will Stoner, who works at the AARP Office of Volunteer Engagement from his home in New York. He’s in charge of recruiting volunteers and preparing them for calls.

And all the way in California, here’s Laurie Onofrio-Collier, a Friendly Voice volunteer and administrator. Before coronavirus, she was an AARP District Liaison Volunteer, but recently joined the Friendly Voices team. You might say she’s found her calling by lifting people’s spirits. Excuse the pun.

 

Mike Ellison:

How did you get involved with AARP Friendly Voice?

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

I'm one of those people who already was an AARP volunteer. I got the email, I said to my husband, "What do you think about this?" He said, "Chatting with people on the phone? That's perfect for you. Go for it."

 

Mike Ellison:

If you’re looking to hear from one of these trained volunteers -- and, believe me, they would love to receive your call.

 

Mike Ellison:

Will, how do you conduct training when everyone's meant to be staying home? Clearly, it's not like one of the Navy Seal training movies we've seen. You're not out there with the whistle and yelling, "Let's go. Let's go. Let's go." How are you training everybody?

 

Will Stoner:

I'm going to brag a little bit about the team that I work with.

 

Mike Ellison:

Let's do it. Brag away please.

 

Will Stoner:

I actually call it the gauntlet of support and the gauntlet of training. Because we have an obligation to our volunteers, to make sure that they're prepared for whatever role their going to step into. Like Laurie said, this is a role ... Yeah, some people are good at talking with people on the phone, some people have call center experience, which is great. Then others are just they want to help. So we wanted to make sure that everyone was at the same level. My team and I have been doing virtual based training intently and intensely for more than two years where we work with staff and volunteers across the whole entire association, all 53 state offices, to prepare them and equip them with tools and resources to recruit more volunteers, engage them in leadership opportunities, build and sustain teams.

 

Will Stoner:

So we've been doing this really well for two years. When I raised my hands for this, I immediately said, "Okay. We need to get people through training quick." Because we have to stand this up and, they asked me to stand this up in seven days and we did. We have volunteers in the system and ready for calls in seven days. We started out with an information session and then we went into basic tech training for the system that they'd be using. Then we worked with our foundation who have expertise in isolation, caregiving, hunger, housing issues.

 

Mike Ellison:

Speaking of AARP Foundation, we heard from its president Lisa Marsh Ryerson earlier in the episode. She said that prolonged social isolation is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day, meaning it doesn’t just impact mental health.

 

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

Prolonged isolation increases the incidence of coronary disease, of depression, of stroke, it can lower immunity. And a recent study that AARP Foundation funded with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, showed that 43% of adults 50 and older report that they're lonely. So those numbers were staggering in advance of this pandemic, and are likely to increase unless we harness the energy of great programs like the Friendly Voices Call Line and build a habit to reach out to our older neighbors all of the time.

 

Mike Ellison:

What did you learn through this process? I mean, you're a longtime volunteer but during a crisis, like a pandemic and during this isolation, you're talking to all these folks, has it broadened your skill set? Has it broadened your sense of compassion? What are you taking from this?

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

It's really broadened my understanding of how isolated and lonely some people are even before the pandemic. So there's disabled people and seniors who already maybe get out once a week or they get out to the senior center or they're in a senior housing and they have activities there. Everything has been shut down. Everything. They can't have meals with people, they can't play cards anymore, they can't go to the pool, they can't go to the senior center. They can't even feel like they can go safely out to the grocery store. They already were pretty isolated, they already were pretty lonely.

 

Now the pandemic is here and they're sitting there staring out four walls. Literally, some people are staring at a one room of four walls. So we are their bridge, we're their lifeline. Some of these people, they want us to call them every day. We are the only human that they talk to every day. I talked to a lady today who's writing down every single person who calls her so that she can have that connection. She's a very upbeat lady who has a lot of hobbies and interests but she just moved somewhere, has no friends and she moved to this community with all these activities and they're all shutdown so she's got nobody but her daughter. So this is for her, I mean, a life saver for her.

 

Mike Ellison:

You have educated me because we're all aware of our own unique circumstances, and we're all pretty much in a survive and advance mode. Like the NCAA Tournament, you just try to win the game in front of you and stay positive and it is a time when you can lose sight of what other people are dealing with. I'd not thought about the level of isolation that you just describe. Are you able to set it up to where you specifically can call the same person or does it change from day-to-day?

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

It changes from day-to-day, and I actually think that's better because we have to be really careful here that we're not becoming counselors or taking responsibility for someone or being a crisis person. We're a friendly voice to people who are lonely, want to connect, we want to show that we care. I think the better way to show that we care is that 100 people call someone instead of one person calling someone. I think that they like that. So far, I'm purposely not calling someone that I just called and they're delighted with it.

 

Mike Ellison:

It's like having a birthday party, one person coming or 100 person coming. Will, what do you learn into this? I mean, you have experience as a volunteer, as an organizer, obviously, you get things done quickly and efficiently. What have you learned through this process?

 

Will Stoner:

Yeah. I'm never surprised by the way that our volunteers stepped into an opportunity. I learned that a long time ago is that if you create an opportunity and you articulate what the purpose is, AARP can fulfill that role ten times over, 100 times over. For me, personally, when I make the calls, it's transformative. For me, I'm isolated as much as everyone else. I'm fortunate though that I have a wife and two children in my home that are keeping me company. I've made a few calls where when the person answers, it's heart wrenching because they sound so sad and lonely. But by the end of a literally seven to 10-minute call, you can hear the tenor or the tone in their voice change completely to one of hope of, "Okay. Everything's going to be fine."

 

That is, for me, why I love making the calls too, as much as it's all the work that goes into or keeping this organized and working with 250 volunteers and more is that I take a few minutes to make some of those harder calls, too. We escalate certain calls where if we hear something around food security, like they're having real issues, and just giving them some basic resources or opportunities to overcome those challenges isn't something that they can do on their own, we escalate some of those. I call them back and we have some folks that are in the foundation who are experts in hunger resources are also doing that.

 

It's really it's transforming their lives, I know it, and it's definitely doing it for me. So if it's doing it for me, I know how it's helping them. Why I get excited that our roles of callbacks, people that keep saying, "Call me back tomorrow. Call me back next week," keeps growing and growing and growing. That's a testament that this is working and it's working really well. The bad news side of that is there's so much isolation and people are feeling so isolated that they feel that they need those calls regularly. It's a good thing, bad thing. It's like you're happy we're helping.

 

Mike Ellison:

Now, how do they access that? There's a person that they ... What if they don't have the same technology and they can't just get online, are there numbers and places they can call to get the help that they need?

 

Will Stoner:

The first step, if you will, for the Friendly Voice, the first line, if you will, is to reiterate to them that we're not a crisis intervention center or a hotline, we're a friendly voice. We have some resources that we do give them at our 800 numbers, not internet, so that they can make a call. We can even offer to transfer them right from the call center, right from our call, we could say, "If you'd like, we could connect you."

 

Will Stoner:

When it gets escalated, that's because someone heard something a little bit different in the conversation where someone was exasperated because they've tried everything to get food delivered or whatever it might be. So then it goes to an escalation team and then they can step in and offer a couple other steps and resources. What we're trying to do to the best of our ability is transition the conversation though back to we're here to have that friendly chat. That's our purpose.

 

Mike Ellison:

Laurie, you recall an encounter with a particular caller that really stood out to you?

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

I think the call I had today was a really good example of someone who the pandemic has really affected. Very upbeat, positive lady, 80 years old, retired nurse, and had all these activities. You know, dance instructor and I mean, she's a go-getter. And she had just moved to be near her daughter and just moved into this 55-plus community with a pool and all these activities and dance lessons and piano and then this hit. She moved in beginning of March. This hits, she doesn't know anybody. Her daughters would stay at home and grandchildren are stay at home so they're not coming over. She knows nobody. She's sitting in this new apartment. But she's finding ways to ... I try to talk to people to be, as AARP says, a thought partner and she's finding ways to keep herself busy.

 

She started putting up pictures. I like to ask people about hobbies. I like to ask them, "Well, what did you do before all this happened?" I've had conversations with people who will tell me about what they did for a living, they will tell me about their marriages. A lot of the people that have called no longer ... They are living alone and no longer have a spouse and they'll talk sometimes about how they met. The key is to keep the conversation light. That's not easy to do in these times. So I've come up with some topics to bring up so that we can get to that light conversation. We can get to that conversation that takes our mind off of all this stuff that's going on. It's really heavy.

 

Mike Ellison:

So learning how to pivot is part of that training.

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

Yes. Yes. Redirecting. I bring up topics about hobbies, what ... If they bring up, I kind of go with their lead. So when she said she was a retired nurse, I went down that path and I said, "Well, what did you do? Where did you work? What was your favorite?" If they go down a path that's light, I'll go down that path with them and take it as far as we can go. Then maybe we need another. Some people, I will say this, some people are so lonely and isolated, you don't even have to say anything. They are just thirsty for someone to talk to.

 

Some of the conversations, I can't even get a word in edgewise. There are times, I will say as a volunteer, we have to take care of ourselves. There was a day last week that I got off the phone, it was a pretty heavy conversation where the lady basically said, "I'm a nothing." I just got off the phone and thought, "Oh my gosh." I mean, I just wanted to cry. I said, "Wait a minute here. You have got to take care of yourself. You have got to call your friends, you have got to have feeling uplifting conversations with your own social circle. And then when you're full, then you have something to give."

 

Will Stoner:

What Laurie just said is it's got me in goosebumps. And that's why you can see Laurie is so special. She's jumped into this really headlong and just has owned the role and has stepped into some other opportunities to show some leadership for the whole group. We have what we call Zendesk office hours so that people can see the system that we're using. And we share stories and we're turning that into, not a gauntlet of training but now a gauntlet of support where we're looking to create small group conversations about sharing some of these stories, some of the challenging things that we're hearing, how people were able to beautifully transition a conversation from something sad to something uplifting.

 

Mike Ellison:

For me on this call, Laurie, you've educated me and lifted my spirits at the same time. I wonder, have you ever reached out to someone and they themselves became interested in this program and said, "You know what? I'd like to do what you ... What you just did for me, Laurie, I'd like to do that for someone else." Has that happened for you or any of the other volunteers?

 

Laurie Onofrio-Collier:

Yes, I had a day where 2 people said they wanted to be a volunteer.

 

Mike Ellison: Will later told me that the response to get volunteers for this program has been massive. So, at the time of this recording, Will is not recruiting for more volunteers. They have about two hundred fifty people taking calls right now...and over six hundred more waiting to be fully trained.

 

Mike Ellison:

Is there anything you two would like to add that we haven’t covered yet?

 

Will Stoner:

This new opportunity for AARP volunteers, it's fulfilling a dream that I've had for six years to help people nationwide while having a huge impact on isolation in communities across the country. Six years ago, I started a program on Long Island called the Caregiving Coaching and Reassurance Program and that's what this is modeled after. Where caregivers are just under immense pressure and sometimes just need to vent. So that's the reassurance. These volunteers would just let the caregivers vent to them about their exhaustion or their love and passion for taking care of their loved one, but how hard it is.

 

So I thought, "Well, we could do that. I think we need to do that nationwide." Unfortunately, this current pandemic is the catalyst for creating that. And I'm really excited because there's the opportunity to really build this out.

 

So I'm excited to be able to use this awful situation that we're in and really turn it into a treasure. So a tragedy into a treasure, that's what I'm working to do, really with the power of AARP and the volunteers. We couldn't even imagine being able to do this if we didn't have the volunteer power that we do. It's people like Laurie that are powering this and making this happen. I'm just guiding it and trying to stay out of the way.

 

Mike Ellison:

I imagine another benefit to this program is that because of social distancing and because certain populations as we have been told are at a higher risk, it allows people to make a contribution without putting themselves at risk. What about you, Laurie? Any final thoughts or insights you'd like to share with us?

 

Laurie Onofrio Collier:

We need more calls. We are ready and willing to have more calls. I am one of the admins now and the calls are being gobbled up. I mean, we have so many volunteers that the calls are being gobbled up. So we would like more calls.

 

Mike Ellison:

We wanna get the word out so we can get more calls. Thank you guys for picking up that mantle and doing the work that you're doing. This is fantastic.

 

Will Stoner:

Thank you.

 

Laurie Onofrio Collier:

Thank you, Mike.

 

Mike Ellison:

Well, you heard Laurie. If you’re feeling down from prolonged isolation, or if you just want someone to talk to, call 1-888-281-0145 or visit AARP Community Connections dot org.

Before we sign off, we’ll hear from Andy Miller, who told us something that we found encouraging about the people who visit AARP Community Connections site who are looking to help their neighbors:

 

Andy Miller:

When I look at the site, we can look at the demographics. The analytics package we use to lets us understand the age cohorts of people coming to the site. And our single largest group, not by much, by a little bit, is actually people the age of 25 to 34. These are the people are actually creating the mutual aid groups and coming to try and make sure that these can be found on the site. So that's actually been really surprising. The other thing that's been surprising to me is the breakdown by male, female.

 

The site today is 42% male, which was also surprising to me. So the breakdown of demographics of people coming is all ages coming to the site. The fact that we're having almost as many males come to the site as females was surprising to me.

 

Mike Ellison:

Thank you to our guests Will Stoner, Laurie Onofrio Collier, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, and Andy Miller. To learn more about the Friendly Voices Program or to find a local mutual aid group, visit aarpcommunityconnections.org.

 

If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast at aarp dot org.

 

A big thanks to our news team.

 

Producers Paola Torres, Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

 

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

 

 

 

 

On this week’s episode, hear from the volunteers behind the AARP Friendly Voices call center and how they're helping others combat social isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. 

For more information, visit aarpcommunityconnections.org.

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