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DALLAS (AP) – For Dell Kaplan, 81, the offer to receive calls from a stranger just to chat while staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic was immediately appealing.
“It’s pretty lonely here on my own,” said Kaplan, a suburban Dallas resident who missed meals with friends, family reunions, and classes at a nearby college.
The program offered by the city of Plano is among those that have emerged in the United States during the pandemic to help the elderly with a simple offer to chat.
“It’s really just to give them a social outlet that they might not otherwise have,” said Holly Ryckman, a library support supervisor who is part of fifteen staff at several. Plano municipal services who together have made about 50 calls per week starting in April.
Brent Bloechle, a library manager who helped organize the program, said the city plans to keep it going until at least midsummer, and possibly permanently.
People who receive the calls have various social interactions in their lives, Ryckman said. Many, she said, speak of parents who are in touch, so her calling might just be “a piece of the puzzle” in helping them stay engaged.
This is the case with Kaplan, who speaks regularly with her daughter, granddaughters and friends, follows people on Facebook, and participates in her adult learning classes online.
But Kaplan said his bi-weekly conversations with Ryckman gave him something to look forward to “beyond the usual.”
Laurie Onofrio-Collier has made calls to seniors across the United States from her California home as part of AARP’s Friendly Voices program. Onofrio-Collier said her goal is for everyone she calls to “feel uplifted, feel good”.
Like the Plano program, Friendly Voices volunteers guide people to resources if they need help from local groups with things like grocery shopping – the AARP Community Connections site lists groups at United States offering help – but the main point is the conversation.
Onofrio-Collier said some people she called live with a spouse, while others live alone.
She said the conversations spanned everything from hobbies and vacations to happy memories.
Onofrio-Collier approached an interlocutor about a shared experience: “We ended up talking about how… when we were children, we loved to read so much that we read under the covers with a flashlight. “
“I hang up with a smile,” said Onofrio-Collier.
She is one of more than 1,000 volunteers who make the calls, according to Andy Miller, senior vice president of AARP Innovations Labs.
Miller said some people wanted help with the technology so they could stay in touch with their grandchildren. A volunteer helped a woman find out how to play checkers online with her grandson.
“We see a lot of it – where people are just trying to stay in touch with their families in ways that they probably weren’t doing before,” Miller said.
The elderly are among those who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness and death from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That’s why health officials are encouraging people over 65 to stay home even as some states relax restrictions put in place due to the pandemic. For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms, and the vast majority recover within a few weeks.
“Some older people may be the last to come out because of the vulnerability,” Miller said.
Kaplan, who retired 11 years ago after more than two decades running the Plano senior center, said she and Ryckman didn’t know each other but found common ground to talk about the city and dealing with isolation at home.
Ryckman said the appeals were “a gift” to her.
Kaplan said that when she felt it was safe for her to venture into places other than the grocery store, she planned to visit the library and meet Ryckman in person.