REAL Friends Program Combats Social Isolation Among Michiana Seniors

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Mature Black Man Talking On Smartphone Looking Aside Standing Indoors Working From Home. Senior Male Having Pleasant Phone Conversation. Gadgets, Mobile Communication

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By: REAL Services + Home Comfort Experts

A simple, short phone call can mean so much.

Volunteers and seniors in the community know that to be true from their involvement in REAL Services’s REAL Friends program.

The REAL Friends program was established about 18 months ago as a way to check in on seniors in the community via phone calls, Jane Yuhasz, Training and Implementation Manager for Nutrition and Transportation at REAL Services, says.

At that time, Meals on Wheels was dropping off meals to seniors and wasn’t able to check in with them on a personal level every day. So, REAL services staff began making calls to those seniors to combat social isolation. Now, volunteers have taken over that role.

Volunteers make calls when the senior prefers to receive them, whether that’s once a week, once a month, or anything in between.

“This is a way to volunteer in the community that is so easy,” Yuhasz says. “It’s almost effortless in a way. It’s just calling and talking to someone. I think that even for volunteers, we’re in such a rush-rush world that it’s a nice break to take time out and call somebody.”

Meeting a need 

The REAL Friends program was revamped in January 2022 as staff returned to their usual jobs. Since the need for connection remained for seniors in the community, the program gained outside volunteers so the calls could continue. 

“I see this a lot when I go out for my Meals on Wheels deliveries, there are a lot of people who are elderly in the community that have support — they might have a pretty good network of friends or relatives, but there are also so many people that are just isolated because it’s just them,” Yuhasz says. “You might not be able to make eye contact, but you can make voice contact, and that just feels reassuring to somebody to have that on the other line.”

There are a lot of seniors who were married for decades, had their spouse pass away, and are now widowed and longing for connection, she adds.

After the calls, volunteers fill out a form and send it to Yuhasz to tell her what they talked about and to report if any needs have come up so she can help get the seniors connected to the resources they need. 

Creating a bond

Yuhasz herself has made calls and says it’s as simple as seeing how someone is doing.

“They’re grateful to hear a voice to say, ‘Tell me what you’re up to today,’ or, ‘I see that you’re really into knitting. What are you working on right now?’” she says. “It’s really rewarding to have those conversations.” 

The volunteers say it helps them just as much as it helps the seniors. Some volunteer and senior duos have actually met up for lunch, or the volunteer has taken the person they call to a doctor’s appointment. It’s completely up to the volunteer to do things like that. It’s not something that REAL Friends asks them to do, but it just shows that they’ve developed real friendships and relationships. 

Yuhasz says the nice thing about volunteering with this program is that it doesn’t have to interrupt work hours. Calls can be made in the evening or on weekends — it just depends on what the senior wants. 

“I think it’s just a really good way for people to bond within the community at a distance,” she says. 

In March, the program had the highest amount of time called yet at 17 hours and 34 minutes. That’s with 18 volunteers calling and 102 calls made. Every month the program is trying to increase that amount of time called a little bit. 

Get involved 

Even as COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, Yuhasz says she would like to see the program be able to sustain itself. 

“I think the key to that is going to be just continuing to get in volunteers that are also looking for that companionship,” she says. “It’s just so easy and it’s so fulfilling.”

There are seniors wanting calls in four counties — St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko, and Marshall. There are about 70 people currently waiting for a caller.

Yuhasz encourages people to ask themselves if they miss phone calls, get tired of texting, and want to hear a voice on the other end of a phone call.

If you want to get involved as a volunteer with REAL Friends, visit REAL Services’s website. If you know a senior in the community who could use some phone calls or have questions about the program, email Yuhasz at jane@realservices.org.

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