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‘There’s a Need For Social Connection:’ Senior Phone Call Service Gains Popularity In Pandemic

Suzanne Beecher began making phone calls to isolated seniors in March. She found many who were struggling, alone.

"One man, he had to drop his wife off at the ER and he hadn't been able to go in and she was on a ventilator. And he was just sobbing on the phone,” she recalled.

“All I could say is, 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.' And then listen some more and just try to be there. There were a lot of calls like that.”

More than 40,000 people over age 60 in Sarasota live alone, according to the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

As a volunteer for Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Beecher wanted to help during the pandemic, so she kept making calls, offering seniors free meal delivery and a weekly phone check-in if they wanted.

“At the end of one call, the guy said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Beecher said. “And I was like, yeah, okay, I really am doing my part here."

Beecher, 66, is a book author and a columnist. She wrote about the program, called the "telephone reassurance line," in one of her columns.

Sidney Milstone, 78, a retired high school English teacher, read that column just as she was feeling increasingly alone and confined.

"We have no family here at all," said Milstone, who lives in Sarasota with her husband, Leonard.

"All of a sudden, you couldn't go anywhere, couldn't do anything, couldn't see anybody," she said.

So Milstone called Senior Friendship Centers with an unusual request.

"I said, ‘Is it possible that she could be the person that would call me?’"

They arranged it and the two began talking on the phone once a week.

"The funny thing is we don't really talk about books! We talk a lot about other things," said Milstone.

Sometimes it's baking, or grandchildren, or just laughing over Halloween photos.

They’ve also bonded by sharing details about their own chronic health conditions. For Milstone, it’s limited mobility due to a spinal fusion surgery she underwent years ago. For Beecher, it’s an eye issue that limits her vision.

“There was a class that we talked about at the senior center, called ‘Living With a Chronic Health Condition.’ And I debated whether to take it or not," Milstone said.

"And she says, 'Well, why don't you try it?' I did. And it turned out to be very, very informative, and a good way to meet other seniors.”

Milstone says their conversations are never awkward, and the two have struck up a quick friendship.

Beecher agrees.

"I really get a lot out of it and Sidney does too. It's a great match," said Beecher.

While in-person activities at Senior Friendship Centers — which operate in Sarasota, Lee, Charlotte and Collier Counties — have temporarily ceased due to the dangers of spreading coronavirus in a high-risk population, the call service is seeing a surge in demand.

“With people homebound and isolated, there’s a need for a social connection,” said Crystal Rothhaar, Communications Director at Senior Friendship Centers.

“They are so incredibly busy because there is so much need out there right now,” Rothhaar said, noting that program currently has 60-70 volunteers.

Each volunteer often calls multiple people. Most of the time, they don't know each other at first, but a connection soon grows.

“We need more volunteers because there are so many seniors out there who need that support right now,” Rothhaar said.

Volunteers get assigned to a specific person to check in on. The frequency of calls is determined by the person who asks for help. There are no limits on location, Rothhaar said.

“A lot of our homebound seniors don’t have any family. They don’t have any friends to check up on them to make sure they are okay or just somebody to reach out to and have a conversation with. They don’t somebody to spend the holidays with, so having this service is really important for the community.”

For more information or to volunteer for the telephone reassurance line, call 941-955-2122.
Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit .

Suzanne Beecher is an author and columnist in Sarasota, FL
DearReader.com /
Suzanne Beecher is an author and columnist in Sarasota, FL
Leonard and Sidney Milstone
Sidney Milstone /
Leonard and Sidney Milstone

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.
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