A new city program is partnering volunteers via phone with local seniors who are feeling isolated or lonely during the pandemic.
Besides offering seniors someone to talk to while bunkered down against a virus particularly dangerous to them, the free “Phone Pals” program also allows volunteers to refer seniors to various basic-need initiatives they might benefit from.
The program officially launched the week of Dec. 14 and is run through the Burbank Park and Recreation Department’s Joslyn Adult Center. By the end of the week, the adult center’s recreation coordinator Beth McQuitty estimated that between 25 and 30 people had signed up to volunteer for the program.
“None of us have ever lived through a pandemic before and felt this kind of isolation,” McQuitty said, “and it is extremely important, especially for adults over the age of 55, to be exercising their bodies, their minds and to have relational connectedness with other human beings. … Everyone needs to have a friend — and during this time, if that means it’s a friend on the phone, it’s still a friend.”
McQuitty explained that, early in the pandemic, the staff at the Joslyn Adult Center made phone calls to seniors in their programs to check in on them. They found that, while some seniors had spouses or other forms of relational support, others didn’t. Within the first week of the program’s launch, there were about 70 seniors on the call list, though McQuitty expects that number to grow as news about the initiative spreads.
Volunteers are asked to schedule a call with their senior or seniors at least every other week, though the senior can request less frequent check-ins if desired. Those interested in volunteering can contact the Josyln Adult Center for more information, though they must sign up through the Burbank Volunteer Center and clear a background check.
All volunteers must be 18 years of age or older.
“I felt, with COVID, it was important to start reaching out,” said local resident Alison Schooley, one of the new program’s volunteers. “That’s … one of the biggest issues of being in the stay-at-home [order] … I feel like people’s stories are our collective history, and if we don’t listen to them they can be lost. There’s a lot to learn.”
Seniors, who the adult center usually defines as people age 55 and older, can contact the center to be added to the calling list.
Even some seniors, McQuitty noted, have signed up to support their peers through the program.
“We’re really blown away by the community’s desire to help each other during the past eight or nine months,” she said.
The benefit of a telephone program like this one, McQuitty added, is that it’s safe both for the volunteer and for the recipient. Though not all helpers might be able to participate in the city’s Project Hope program — which involves volunteers running errands or picking up groceries for local seniors — the Phone Pals initiative allows them to serve the community while remaining physically distant themselves.
McQuitty also pointed to the program as a simple way for Burbank residents to lend a hand during a pandemic whose severity is often overwhelming.
“I think there’s a feeling of an absence of hope,” she said. “Times are hard, but the reality is that people have the ability to impact other people, and this is a beautiful way that that can happen — just by someone being who they are and being able to build a friendship with another person makes a huge difference, and I think this pandemic has shown what we need more than anything is to be connected with one another. That’s what we miss the most.”