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Published on March 02, 2021

The power of a phone call to ease isolation

The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands

Even before the pandemic forced seniors to socially distance and stay away from family and friends, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that loneliness was a significant health risk for many older Americans. The CDC points to an extensive report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found that more than one-third of people age 45 and older and one-quarter of people age 65 and older are socially isolated, which often leads to a feeling of loneliness.

The health risks of social isolation and loneliness are significant, according to the CDC, but that is not news to Stephanie Kelly, the executive director of The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands, a group that works to prevent suicide in the region. The Samaritans’ Senior Outreach Program is designed to combat that exact problem.

“If you take COVID and the current isolation out of the mix, we started this program about eight years ago and it was because we knew that seniors are much more at risk for suicide and suicide ideology than other folks,” she said. “Then we started looking at the demographics of the Cape and we’ve got such a big senior population here that we knew it was an issue.”

The idea behind the Senior Outreach Program is that trained volunteers call isolated or at-risk seniors at regular intervals to check in on them. Seniors can confidentially talk about things that are troubling them like health problems, loss of loved ones, isolation or depression.

The CDC’s list of health risks from social isolation include:

  • A significant increase in a person’s risk of premature death, correlating to about the same rate as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
  • A 50 percent increased risk of dementia.
  • A 29 percent increase in heart disease and a 32 percent increase in the risk of stroke.
  • A nearly four-time increased risk of death for heart failure patients as well as a 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization and a 57 percent increase in a risk for emergency department visits.
  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

With this information in hand, The Samaritans knew it was vitally important to reach at-risk seniors on the Cape and Islands. The first big challenge the program faced was reaching the seniors in need. The group first distributed a printed brochure about the program in every Meals on Wheels delivery. When the response was underwhelming, they had to rethink the best way to actually reach this demographic, Kelly said.

“Being a senior is a lot different now than it was before because people are living so much longer,” she said. “Seniors now are 65 to 105 and it’s a big bunch of people. We were originally trying to reach that older demographic, but they are not people who are going to reach out and they are not people who are going to tell you what their problems are. And then you add on the fact that they’re afraid if they do that there will be ramifications.”

For example, seniors who are living alone might be afraid to admit that they are lonely or that they hate living alone because they fear being forced into an assisted living center, she said.

A big part of The Samaritans’ job in getting the program running was helping people understand that there are no repercussions for talking honestly about their feelings with an outreach worker. All conversations are confidential and it’s really just a safe environment to talk about whatever they want to talk about.

Currently the Senior Outreach Program finds seniors through referrals from Councils on Aging, physical rehabilitation centers and doctors. Kelly hopes more doctors will start making referrals because she believes primary care physicians are probably the best people to realize when seniors are struggling.

The first phone call from the volunteer to a senior is usually the most difficult, because The Samaritans are so closely associated with suicide prevention. It’s not uncommon for a volunteer to be told they don’t need help from the organization because they are not feeling suicidal, Kelly said.

“Our volunteers are really skilled at finessing that conversation,” she said. “(They say things like) ‘Let’s just talk now and, if you never want to talk again, that’s fine.’” Nearly every time, a good relationship is formed and they always start talking about something they are interested in, she said.

“Invariably they get into much bigger things, much deeper feelings that they may not be able to share with anyone else.”

The Samaritans’ Senior Outreach Program recently received a boost from Cape Cod Healthcare’s Community Benefits program, which awarded a $14,195 2021 grant to further its work connecting to isolated seniors in need.

The group currently works with more than 60 seniors but would like to connect with more people in need. If you know of anyone who might benefit from this program, contact The Samaritans at 800-893-9900 or 508-548-8900.

“I am a firm believer in being able to say things out loud and being able to talk them out, because I think it relieves anxiety and depression and puts things in perspective and just makes you feel better. This program is a great way to be able to do that,” Kelly said.