Think Out Loud

Central Oregon program relieves loneliness with a phone call

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 25, 2021 4:24 p.m. Updated: June 25, 2021 8:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, June 25

The pandemic exacerbated isolation and loneliness for older adults. To combat these health issues, the Council on Aging of Central Oregon launched the Caring Connections program last year. Through phone calls, the program connects adults 60 and older experiencing isolation with volunteers. Emily Freeman is a program outreach manager for the council. Joyce Parker is a client of the program and is matched with Roberta Nye, a program volunteer. They join us with details on Caring Connections and what’s next as COVID-19 restrictions ease in the state.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. Loneliness among older Americans was a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s worse now. A poll released last month by the University of Michigan shows twice as many people 50 and older felt isolated from others than just three years ago. One organization in Central Oregon is trying to help by using the phone and a kind voice. The Council on Aging of Central Oregon launched the Caring Connections program last year. It pairs 50 seniors who are experiencing loneliness with callers who will check in on them every week. Emily Freeman is the program outreach manager for the Council on Aging of Central Oregon and she joins us now. Emily, Good to have you.

Emily Freeman: Thank you for having me.

Geoff Norcross: Roberta Nye is one of the volunteer callers and Joyce Parker is a client. Roberta, Joyce, good to have you as well.

Roberta Nye: Thank you.

Joyce Parker: Thank you.

Norcross: Emily, can you talk first about the problem? How can loneliness and isolation be a health issue?

Emily Freeman: Yeah. So there are several studies that have linked loneliness and isolation to negative health outcomes. And there’s a statistic, one out of seven people with Alzheimer’s live alone. And loneliness is linked to a 40% increase in seniors developing dementia.

Norcross: Can you talk more about how it’s gotten worse in the past year and a half?

Freeman: Yeah, especially the older population. They are one of those groups that is more at risk for COVID. And so we’ve seen a lot of seniors become more isolated throughout the pandemic, just trying to stay safe. Which in turn has caused a whole other problem as well. So..

Norcross: Yeah. You started this program last fall. How did you get it off the ground?

Freeman: So in July we applied for a grant through Deschutes County Health Services for $35,000 and we got it. And then we applied for another grant through the Oregon health authority, also for $35,000. And we got that in October. I actually started as an intern. I was finishing up undergrad at OSU Cascades. So that was sort of my ‘intern project’ was helping with Caring Connections and getting it off the ground. We also partnered with a software company called Mon Ami. They’re amazing, they’ve been amazing to work with. They also work with other organizations that do things like this so we were also able to have them kind of help guide us and let us know what other organizations were doing. So it was really a partnership. And in November we were able to launch it. We called all of our Meals on Wheels clients. I think at the beginning we had about 20 Meals on Wheels clients that had agreed to join the program. And it has just kind of taken off from there.

Norcross: Yeah. Well, what’s the process like? How do you match your volunteers and your clients?

Freeman: Yeah. So, [how] it all starts [is], somebody has to call the Council on Aging. And then myself or Tammy Majors, who I work closely with, with the Caring Connections program, will onboard the client, enter them into the system. We’ll try to learn a little bit about them -- hobbies, past careers, that type of thing. And then we’ll try to pick a volunteer who we think could be a good match for the newest participant. However, there’s a lot of things that you wouldn’t ask on a normal questionnaire. And so, once people are matched, they find out that they actually have a lot more in common than they ever would have thought. Like, we have one pair who both really enjoy woodworking, which is not something that ever would have really come up unless they had kind of chatted about it. So, we do our best to match but, in the end, people find commonalities.

Norcross: Yeah. Well, we have a caller and a client, Roberta and Joyce. Roberta and Joyce, what do you like to talk about?

Roberta Nye: This is Roberta, we talk about everything. I have four daughters, she has three. And the conversation just goes from one thing to another. Even in the beginning we didn’t have a hard time connecting.


Norcross: Yeah. Why did you decide you wanted to get involved?

Nye: Probably because of my relationships with my grandparents. And the phone was my main way to talk to people through the COVID and I just thought it was a great idea to connect with somebody.

Norcross: How long have you and Joyce been talking?

Nye: Joyce? Do you remember when we started?

Joyce Parker: We’ve been talking about five months I guess.

Norcross: Yeah. You think you’ve become friends over that time?

Parker: I think so. It’s something I look forward to in a week. And of course not every week, as it worked out, that we could connect because things come up. She lives close to one of her daughters and I was living with my daughter and her husband. But since then I’ve moved to The Alexander. And we have things in common, although we have many things not in common. Roberta is from the East Coast and I’m basically from the Southwest. But that doesn’t really make a difference.

Norcross: I can imagine. Joyce, can you tell me about why you decided to join this program?

Parker: Well, my daughter was contacted about the program, I guess about February. I had come here from Texas in November. And about February my daughter felt like I needed some contact with other older people, because I’d been living in an independent retirement community in Texas. And so she put an advertisement or whatever you want to call it in Nextdoor, the internet connection here in town, and had fantastic response. What she was really looking for was other people who had maybe their mothers or fathers living with them who are senior citizens. And someone from the Council on Aging contacted her. So that’s how I got in the program.

Norcross: Yeah. So, Roberta, what kind of connection do you feel that you’ve made with Joyce through this program?

Nye: Actually, like you said before, we feel like we’ve become friends. And it’s very flexible. Sorry, my throat’s a little off today. But she’s just been delightful to talk to and, like she said, we found a lot in common and yet a lot of differences, but it’s nice to share and to learn things from other people. And I actually think, if Joyce had been in a retirement community in the beginning, she might not have joined Caring Connections because she’s very sociable and very easy to talk to.

Norcross: Emily Freeman, let’s bring you back in. What kind of feedback are you getting from your clients and volunteers like Joyce and like Roberta?

Freeman: We’re getting great feedback. We have a lot of folks who will be lifelong friends after this. I have my own client that I have been talking to since November. I actually just talked to him yesterday and I said, “I’ll call you next week.” And he said, “Well, I sure hope so. I look forward to it.” So, part of Caring Connections, too, is it sort of acts as a wellness check as well. Our volunteers are obviously in this program volunteering because they genuinely care and have this passion to help older adults. So, we’ve had several volunteers and clients that [had] things come up. For instance, one gentleman’s well ran dry, he was the client. And so the volunteer was able to reach out to us. And we, the Council on Aging, were able to provide some funds to help this client with that situation. And so it’s really cool because, had that gentleman not been matched with the volunteer, it’s possible that he would not have known what to do or that the situation would have never been addressed.

Norcross: And that kind of gets at something that I was wondering. If you have a caller who’s on the phone with a client and the caller hears something that kind of makes them worry a little extra, or they hear something that is kind of a warning flag for them, are they trained for that? Are they trained to notice things like that and do they know what to do if they’re really concerned?

Freeman: Yes. So we, myself and Tammy Majors, when we onboard volunteers, we hold a training for them. And in that training, we kind of give them protocol. So, if it’s something that’s not super urgent, but they need groceries or medication picked up, they’re able to submit a recap through our software. And that comes straight to our email so we’re able to see that and then Tammy or I will follow up. But, if it’s an immediate emergency, like somebody’s having issues breathing, they can call Tammy or I and we are always by our phone. And then Tammy and I can call 911. Because the one thing is that the volunteers don’t have access to the client’s address. It’s just kind of a security thing. And so it all goes through us. And that way too, the volunteer is not liable for anything that happens. So we’ll definitely follow up if there’s something immediate.

Norcross: Just a few seconds left here. But, as restrictions start loosening, what’s happening next with the program?

Freeman: Yes. So, we just got a grant from the Central Oregon Health Council for almost $138,000. And that’s to expand the program into Crook and Jefferson Counties. What we’re trying to do is kind of start making this more in person, if the clients and volunteers would like. Obviously, there will still be some people who don’t want to meet in person and that’s totally fine. But we’re really going to start giving people the option to meet in person if they’d like.

Norcross: Excellent. Thank you all very much. We’ve been speaking with Emily Freeman, who runs the Caring Connections program for the Council on Aging of Central Oregon. Also Roberta Nye, one of the callers and Joyce Parker is a client.

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