Stuck in Quarantine? Call a Stranger - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Telephone befriending has caught on as a way to help lonely senior citizens. So why not lonely ... everyone?

When was the last time you called your grandmother? I’ll start: I can’t remember. Sometimes we email. In fairness, we live nine time zones apart, and I did just mail her some books. She also has nine children who I know are checking on her daily. And yes, I feel bad about not calling.

But lots of people have stopped calling. And some organizations in the U.K. and Ireland have set up volunteer phone banks to take the place of those delinquent relatives and absent friends, regularly calling people who are elderly, isolated and lonely, both to chat and to check up on them.

It’s known as telephone befriending, and under normal circumstances it’s only used for elderly citizens, because they tend to be more isolated than other people in society. But now, thanks to coronavirus quarantines, we’re all isolated. So what if we had a telephone befriending scheme for … well, everybody?

You start off meeting a social need, but you end up meeting an emotional need.

Seán Moynihan, CEO of Alone

“The empirical evidence is fairly strong that loneliness can really damage your health,” says Seán Moynihan, CEO of the Dublin-based, senior-focused charity Alone, which includes telephone befriending among its programs. Since the coronavirus — which confines even healthy, not-normally-isolated seniors to their homes with little outside contact — Alone volunteers have been making about 18,000 calls a week, a huge increase from their normal rate of about 4,000.

Now it’s not just seniors who are isolated — even though they have been disproportionately targeted by the virus. Normally, someone in their 20s or 30s who’s lonely would be more likely to switch jobs, move or go on weird Tinder dates than your average senior citizen. But with huge chunks of society effectively trapped by quarantine, loneliness is coming for a whole lot more people.

It can be a challenge for such charities to find the seniors who need their help the most, since they’re by definition isolated. Many are referred to the organization by a doctor or hospital, once they realize an older patient lacks an adequate support system. Others are just people who took the initiative to call in. “Which is a tremendously brave thing, to actually ring up and say, ‘I’m lonely,’” Moynihan says.

A temporary program to call the lonely could potentially operate along similar lines, with people signing up themselves or being referred by family or acquaintances. Telephone befriending as it currently exists is (among other things) a way of making a new friend, as organizations like Alone strive to make sure the same volunteer keeps in touch with the same vulnerable person week after week. “You start off meeting a social need,” Moynihan explains, “but you end up meeting an emotional need.” And with a more general program, it’s likely that the two people on each end of the phone will both be in isolation, putting them on a more level playing field and potentially facilitating friendships that will continue after the coronavirus quarantine is long over. Perhaps it would even be a way of humanizing strangers in a time of polarization and distrust. But we’d settle for a few laughs and an hour on the telephone — fixing society completely seems a tall order.

With everyone suddenly lonely on a relatively similar — and nationwide or areawide — scale, it might not be quite so scary to admit that one needs help. In fact, Moynihan says that recent weeks have seen both a huge influx of seniors reaching out for help and new volunteers stepping up to deal with the thousands of new calls. “We’re really hopeful that there will be a positive legacy from this,” he says, “where we will have built the network to reach into our communities.”  

If you are interested in setting up a network to help isolated people in your area, feel free to contact Alone at Alone.ie for tips and advice.

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