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Free Calls Offered to Older Americans Living Alone

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The coronavirus pandemic can be especially difficult for older adults who live alone. To help support them, some American communities and groups have set up services aimed at meeting their needs for human contact and small talk.

The city of Plano, Texas offers such a program. A group of about 15 city government workers reach out to Plano's elderly individuals by telephone. Now, some residents look forward to getting phone calls from total strangers.

The idea of getting calls from a stranger - just to chat - was immediately appealing to 81-year-old Dell Kaplan. "It gets pretty lonely here by yourself," she told The Associated Press.

Older individuals are more likely than other age groups to get infected with and die from COVID-19, the disease resulting from the coronavirus. Because of this, health officials have urged people over 65 to keep staying home even as some areas begin lifting restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Kaplan enjoys the chats while missing out on family get-togethers, dining with friends and attending classes at a nearby college.

Holly Ryckman is one of the government workers taking part in the program. Together they make about 50 calls a week to Plano's elderly residents. "It's really just to give them a social outlet that they might not have otherwise," she said.

Ryckman noted that people receiving the calls have differing amounts of social contact in their lives. Some like to talk about family members who are keeping in touch. That is the case for Kaplan, who said she often speaks on the phone with family members and friends, and also keeps up with people on Facebook.

But Kaplan said her bi-weekly chats with Ryckman give her something to look forward to "besides the usual."

Brent Bloechle helped organize Plano's program. He says the city plans to keep it operating at least through mid-summer, and maybe permanently.

Another project providing free calls to elderly Americans is the Friendly Voices program. It is a service of AARP, an organization representing the interests of older Americans.

Laurie Onofrio-Collier has been placing calls from her home in California to people across the country. She says her goal for each call is to help the other person "feel uplifted, to feel good."

Like the Plano program, Friendly Voices' volunteers help guide people to resources and local groups if they need help with getting food or other necessities. But the main goal of the project is to provide a social connection.

Onofrio-Collier said the adults she has spoken with talk about a lot of things, from personal interests to happy memories. She connected with one caller over a shared experience. "We ended up talking about how ... when we were kids, we loved to read so much that we would read under the covers with a flashlight."

"I get off the phone with a smile," she said. Onofrio-Collier is among about 1,000 volunteers making the calls, notes Andy Miller, who works with AARP. He said some people ask for help with technology so they can stay connected with family members.

One volunteer helped a woman learn how to play a game of checkers online with her grandchild. "We're seeing a lot of that -- where people are just trying to stay connected to family in ways that they probably didn't do before," Miller said.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

pandemic n. a disease spreading over a wide area and affecting a high percentage of the population

chat v. to talk with someone in a friendly, unstructured way

outletn. a way for someone to express an emotion, idea or ability

uplift v. to make someone happy or hopeful

kids – n. children

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