‘A lifesaver’: phone service an antidote to isolation

Seniors Offering Support dialing in community connection with weekly calls

WELLINGTON COUNTY – After a life’s work of raising three boys and running a hairdressing business in Guelph, Linda feels alone and forgotten.

“A lot of us do,” the 75-year-old said, speaking of other seniors.

The Advertiser agreed to use Linda’s first name only out of a concern for personal privacy because she discussed her medical history for this story.

Pre-pandemic, Linda visited a local senior’s centre to socialize but as an emphysemic, she hasn’t been in two years.

Social outings now largely consist of walks accompanied by a nine-year-old miniature pinscher named Sasha.

Being in person, she said, is “really not my bag.”

“I really have had to stay inside and away from people, and that, just, oh my God…” Linda says, trailing off. “These phone calls are a lifesaver.”

Each week for the past five years, a volunteer from the Seniors Offering Support (SOS) phone line rings Linda to chat about whatever fits the moment.

“We have some jokes and kid around, and I have learned things from the volunteers,” Linda said.

“When I hear the voice of the volunteer it just seems to calm me down and I feel like I’m part of the world.”

Linda was previously an SOS client with the Guelph Wellington Seniors’ Association until a funding reduction threatened to silence the lines for good.

Enter Compass Community Services last month when executive director Joanne Young Evans got word the line needed saving.

Compass already operates several phone-based support services, including a distress line receiving thousands of calls a month, a TeleConnect service with 100 clients, and a support line dedicated to those identifying as part of the 2SLGBTQI community.

In other words: why not add another phone service to the complement?

“This service isn’t only useful, it’s critical,” Young Evans said, explaining it helps seniors grow old at home with safety, dignity and independence.

Tina Marques coordinates Compass’ telephone services, including the SOS program, which officially launched on May 12.

The telephone service is fitting for seniors wary of emerging from the safety and comfort of home, and for those who are with physical and accessibility limitations.

“The goal of this program is providing an outlet for seniors to feel more connected in their community,” Marques said.

Many enjoy simply chatting about people in their lives, or what they’ve gotten up to during the week, but older adults are also reaching out for a sense of safety and security, discussing feelings, worries, and unresolved thoughts.

“The pandemic has been a huge topic, of course, and the war in the Ukraine,” Marques said.

Social and physical isolation are not unique to the pandemic for seniors – they have been a “forever thing” says Marques. 

Some may not talk to anyone for days or weeks at a time.

“That’s really, really hard on somebody – emotionally, mentally,” Marques said.

Volunteers provide a listening ear, offer advice, share personal anecdotes, or connect over the shared experiences of later life.

Compass currently has just two senior volunteers making callouts to clients and is slowly ramping up service to accommodate 12 seniors with the hope of recruiting more volunteers and clients alike.

Volunteers might be chatty folks, retired and looking to fill time, love helping people, or perhaps are a little lonely themselves.

Most clients are being referred to the phone service by paramedics in the Guelph Wellington Paramedic Services Community Paramedic program, but the service, free-of-charge, is available to anyone over 50 years old.

First-time clients call 519-821-3760 (dial extension two) and leave a voice message.

Marques will follow up with a phone call and complete an intake, learning more about who’s on the other end.

Everything is done over phone, and clients and volunteers coordinate times between themselves once matched.

“We really respect these people, and we want to be here for them,” Marques said of seniors, adding many have spent their lives raising families, and contributing to the workforce and their communities.

For those like Linda, the SOS line can be a weekly reminder that someone, somewhere, does care and that she is not alone or forgotten.

“It fills so many holes in my life; so many things are helped by talking.”