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Better Together: Volunteers Phone In To Keep Seniors Company During Shelter-In-Place

(KPIX 5) -- The shelter-in-place order is particularly hard on senior citizens who live alone. An increasing number of them are reaching out for connections and volunteers are answering the call.

Anika Kumar and her teenage friends started calling senior citizens four years ago to alleviate the elders' loneliness. Kumar's nonprofit, Forget Me Not, was regularly calling about 60 older adults in Santa Clara County each week for free.

But after the shelter-in-place order, the UC Berkeley student suddenly found herself and her volunteers fielding requests from 32 states.

"There's been this huge influx from people all over the country," Kumar said. "So now, we're starting new training, and we're hoping to scale up the program by a factor of five."

Forget Me Not volunteers like Anna Sigua calls 87-year-old Bob Chapman once a week.

"We've developed a strong stable connection. I'd consider him a really close friend of mine," Sigua said.

Chapman, who is blind, said their half-hour conversations chase away depression.

"Wonderful, just wonderful. I just love to hear her voice," Chapman said. "Every call I get, it's like somebody's here."

The weekly phone call also lifts the spirits of 69-year-old Remy Palomar who can't go out to exercise during the shelter-in-place order.

"I can't sleep well," Palomar said. "It's kind of hard. I don't know how long this is going to be."

A growing number of older adults are also calling the Friendship Line at San Francisco's Institute on Aging. The 24-hour toll-free crisis line also phones senior citizens who feel isolated, even desperate.

Dr. Patrick Arbore, who founded the Friendship Line 47 years ago, does not yet have the current count, but he says it's well past 18,000 calls logged in February.

"We're grieving," said Dr. Arbore. "That's what Friendship Line tries to offer: a compassionate ear and a kind of voice to say, 'Tell me how you feel.'"

He can't add more volunteers into the small call center without violating the six feet social distancing rule, so he's looking at expanding into a second office.

And 20 people are on a waiting list for volunteer training to bring comfort and companionship to people.

Arbore detailed a recent interaction he had with one woman. "And she said, 'I can't tell you how much this phone call means to me because it says I'm still alive and somebody knows it,'" Dr. Arbore explained.

And the service is rewarding for those on the other end of the line, whether it's a volunteer from the Friendship Line or Forget Me Not.

Volunteer Ca-Dao Pham said she's "providing a listening ear to them."

"I'm happy that I get to do that," she said.

Their service is a reminder that though physically apart, both parties feel better when connected together.

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