When Ann Fosco answers calls for Coffee Talk, a new phone support line for Minnesota seniors in need of companionship and conversation created by the Twin Cities nonprofit Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, most people don’t just come out and tell her why they are calling.
“I don’t think I’ve had anyone come right out and say, ‘I am so lonely,’” said Fosco, Little Brothers’ community impact director, “but they do say things like, ‘This pandemic is getting old,’ or, ‘I can’t believe that I can’t leave my room,’ or, ‘It’s so sad that they took all the chairs out of the lobby.’”
Those indirect comments, Fosco said, are one way that callers are saying they’re feeling alone and isolated.
“We’re all feeling that way these days,” she said, “but enforced isolation especially takes a toll on older people. Some are sad. Some are mad. No matter how they’re expressed, those feelings of isolation and loneliness are real.”
This winter, with financial support in the form of a $107,000 matching grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), Little Brothers created Coffee Talk, a spinoff of sorts of the organization’s popular Elder Friends Phone Companions program.
A casual drop-in opportunity
While Elder Friends matches older adults with one volunteer for regular phone chats, Coffee Talk is a casual drop-in opportunity, where older Minnesotans can call and find a friendly person on the line who can provide support, resources — or simply a listening ear.
The DHS funding came in recognition of the toll that the pandemic has taken on the state’s aging population, especially on those living in assisted or congregate housing, or alone, with limited family support, said James Falvey, executive director of Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly.
The nonprofit, with its nearly 75-year history of supporting older people in need, was an obvious pick to create Coffee Talk. The DHS funding supports, Falvey explained, “the build out of this program. We want to be thoughtful in its creation, to solicit input from other warmlines internationally. We want to set this project up for success as well as possible.”
Coffee Talk launched a pilot program at the beginning of February, with some pretesting among older adults living in senior housing facilities.
The program will continue to expand through the end of June, Falvey said. “We’re hoping we’ll have a better understanding of the community’s interest in the program by then. We have every intention of making it an ongoing program, but we need to see if older adults are accepting of it.”
Fosco said that she has been promoting Coffee Talk through a variety of channels, including sending a notice to older adults already signed up for Elder Friends.
“They received a post card saying, ‘You are paired with a volunteer who you talk to a couple times a week, but if you ever want to talk to someone else, there’s Coffee Talk,’” she said. Staff also reached out to other organizations that work with older adults, including health care clinics and health plans.
No matter how word gets out, the need for a program like Coffee Talk is clearly there, Falvey said: “About two years ago, Cigna did a study on social isolation in America. They found that one-third of all people in this country are socially isolated to the extent that it could have a negative impact on their health.”
The negative health impact of isolation and loneliness are magnified in the aging population, Falvey added.
“When we look at the demographic of older adults living by themselves in the state of Minnesota, we have to figure there is in excess of 50,000 older adults who live alone and lack the social network to help them feel fully well,” Falvey said. “This is a large number of people who are at risk of serious isolation.”
For most of its history, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly has built its work around face-to-face contact with older adults. When COVID-19 made in-person visits with elders impossible, the organization created Elder Friends, so that volunteers and their senior partners could continue their relationship with regular phone calls. The program expanded: New volunteers and new seniors joined.
But not every older adult wants to commit to an ongoing relationship with a volunteer, Falvey said. Coffee Talk was created for people who’d prefer to participate at their chosen pace.
“It’s a drop-in line where you as an older adult could call only if you want to, and whoever is volunteering in that moment will answer the call and engage you in a friendly conversation,” Falvey explained. While the volunteer answering the phone will be welcoming and engaging, they will likely not have an established relationship with the caller, he added: “They’ll probably not know the caller well enough to be able to ask how their cat Fifi is doing.”
Sometimes, when she tells a potential participant about the Elder Friends program, Fosco said she gets some pushback: “When I approach them and say, ‘We have this wonderful program. You can take advantage of it. You can make a friend,’ they’ll say, ‘No, no. I don’t need anybody. I’m fine.’”
She’s discovered that Coffee Talk’s more casual approach appeals to that audience. “If you take the commitment out of it and say, ‘If you want to talk to someone, call this number. You don’t have to give your name and you don’t have to sign up for anything,’ you get a bit more interest.”
More commitment-focused programs, like Elder Friends (and, in non-COVID times, the face-to-face Visiting Companions program) are designed to build lasting relationships. “The Phone Companion program is all about relationship development,” Fosco explained. “It is about easing people’s loneliness and isolation through friendship. It requires a commitment to connecting with each other on a regular basis, which is phenomenal.”
But some older adults aren’t in the market for a new friend, Fosco said: “What they want is to be able to pick up the phone on their own schedule.”
A program like Coffee Talk, she explained, ”empowers older adults to be able to say, ‘I’m in control of my own choices, my own feelings, my own relationships.’ They’re on their own terms. They don’t have to follow somebody else’s script. You can call as often as you want. You can call once and never call back. You can call every day if you want to.”
‘Loneliness is the common denominator’
The other week, when volunteer Vicki Doyle was answering phones for Coffee Talk, her callers all had different needs and interests.
“Several of the calls I had were from people that are already part of our Phone Companion program,” she said. “Some were people who’d never been involved but just wanted to chat with someone.” Then there was the woman calling from the East Coast.
“She’d heard about our program somehow and decided to give us a call,” Doyle said. Though Coffee Talk is intended for Minnesotans, Doyle explained, “I wasn’t going to chase this woman away. She was lonely. I gave her the phone number for Little Brothers in the state where she lives so she could call them in the future.”
Though her callers all came from different backgrounds and had different reasons for reaching out, Doyle noticed they did have one thing in common.
“Loneliness is the common denominator among all of our callers,” she said. “As a volunteer, your job is to just talk to someone about whatever they want to talk about. It’s usually the weather. Maybe they’ll talk about what they did when they were working. Sometimes they talk about their family.”
But, said Doyle, who also volunteers with Elder Friends, she’s been noticing an undercurrent of isolation in all her callers.
“I think there are a lot of elders that are lonely, especially if, like my Phone Companion lady, they’ve lost a spouse or children,” Doyle said. “I think for many older folks, loneliness always exists. It’s just magnified right now because of COVID. You can’t go anywhere. You can’t interact with people.”
Though Coffee Talk is only just getting started, Doyle said she’s already seeing an uptick in participation: “During my shift this week, I had eight calls in four hours. My first call lasted 50 minutes.”
Falvey said that so far, Coffee Talk volunteers also volunteer in the organization’s Elder Friends program. But they are training a new team of volunteers to step in as the program expands. “We are in an agile position to staff the line appropriately,” he said.
Part of the Coffee Talk volunteer training includes teaching conversational techniques like asking open-ended questions, expanding listening skills and gauging when it is appropriate to include information about other programs and services. But, Falvey said, it is important to make sure that Coffee Talk doesn’t devolve into an information line.
“We will introduce older adults to other programs only as appropriate,” he said. “But if all indications are that all the caller needs is to sit here and tell someone old, corny jokes, we’ll do that. There is no pressure to get more deeply involved.”
Most Little Brothers volunteers are motivated by a desire to help bring light and companionship to older adults, Fosco said, but there are other benefits to the work.
“There really are two reasons why our volunteers do it. One, they have the feeling that we are all in this together. We are all feeling the impact of the pandemic and the isolation. We are all lonely. The second reason is this work brings people together. It is as good for the volunteer as it is for the person who’s calling in.”
For Doyle, volunteering time at Little Brothers has been a way for her to come to terms with loss.
“We’ve had some tragedies in our family in the last five years,” she said, “and volunteering has always been a great way for me to give back. When you volunteer, you get a lot out of it — especially in an opportunity like this one that focuses on ending elder isolation.”
Another way to make connections
Tiergan Caley leads a full life, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have time to pick up her phone and call Coffee Talk every once in a while. She has been living in a senior building in Minneapolis’ Nokomis neighborhood for the last few years, she explained, “ever since I was one of the victims of the 2008 financial crisis and ended up losing everything.”
Her living situation is not ideal, but Caley’s trying to make the best of it. “This is not how I planned my life,” she said. “But here I am, in my little apartment. I’m not always a happy camper.”
In search of an opportunity to meet up with other like-minded souls, Caley has participated in “Let’s Do Lunch! Café,” a lunchtime meeting for older members of the Twin Cities LGBTQ+ community sponsored by Little Brothers. (The group used to gather in person, but since the pandemic hit, they’ve moved online.) At a recent Let’s Do Lunch! Zoom gathering, someone mentioned Coffee Talk, and Caley decided to give it a try.
“I said, ‘Oh, well, sure,” she recalled. “I miss the face-to-face with everybody, so maybe this is another way to make some connections.”
Until her health took a turn a few years ago, Caley said she wouldn’t have been interested in a program like Coffee Talk, but these days she has plenty of time on her hands. And that extra time — combined with her building’s strict rules limiting contact with others — has made the idea of calling up a stranger for a chat feel appealing.
“I’ve been an activist all my life,” Caley said. “I’ve been very involved, but because of health issues — I had three major surgeries in three years — I’ve been trying to face those vicissitudes. Then I contracted a lung disease. So I’m trying to make the best of things.”
Caley isn’t the only caller who uses Coffee Talk as a way to connect with the larger world, Doyle said.
“Some people are extroverts and get a lot of energy from talking to other people. This one gentleman called the other day and just talked about everything under the sun. I’m thinking that maybe he gets his energy from talking to other people.”
On a recent call, Caley made a special connection with a volunteer. “During their conversation, they discovered that they both have a love of musicals,” Fosco said. “Now she calls on Wednesdays because that’s when she’s on duty.”
One of Doyle’s recent callers was a man in is 80s who already participates in the Elder Friends Phone Companion program.
“He also has a family and grandchildren,” she said, “so I know he’s got people in his life.” Doyle asked the man if he’d like his phone companion to call him more often. “He said no. I guess he just likes talking to a different person when he calls Coffee Talk. That way he has even more people to talk to.”
Fosco said that even though the Coffee Talk callers she’s spoken with so far are, “all over the board,” there is one thing that connects them — and the volunteers they’ve been talking to.
“The common denominator is we all want to feel better. It’s not that they all feel horrible, but the people who call all want to feel uplifted. They want to uplift others. Same thing for our volunteers. One woman who calls says, ‘I want to talk to you because you make me laugh.’ I know just how she feels.”
Coffee Talk (877-238-2282 or 612-746-0728) is open for callers Monday-Friday from 8 am-12 pm. Depending on participation, hours may expand in the coming months.