Mark Rennella, left, and Laura Steuer

What do your residents already have and know how to use that can help them feel less lonely? The telephone.

Beyond the push for you to invest in costly and time-consuming technology (Zoom? iPads?) is a simpler, quicker solution for your residents to create meaningful human connections if they have the right opportunities to cultivate them: phone buddy programs. 

“I was lonely, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to about interesting things,” a 71-year old skilled nursing resident in Cottonwood, KS, told us. She talks to her phone buddy every week for about 30 minutes. The experience brightens her day and helps her look forward to the coming week without social activities. 

It’s no surprise to you and your staff that the increasing isolation of seniors during the COVID crisis has led to complex psychological problems. And you fear that you’re not equipped (either in terms of strategies or resources) to overcome these new challenges. Nurses’ usual smiling faces and reassuring touches are obscured by masks and enveloped by plastic gloves. Families can’t visit their elder relatives where they live. And silence fills the spaces that were populated by grandchildren, friends and visitors who might bring welcome distractions like a music program or the wag of a friendly dog’s tail. The mounting losses in the quality of life for seniors can make caregivers feel hopeless and paralyzed.

At first, it seems hard to imagine an adequate response to this pandemic of loneliness. But we can find powerful solutions  connected to this basic insight: Human beings need to connect with other human beings.

Simple and low-cost phone calls emerge as an immediate way to leapfrog the detritus left by COVID and help you deal directly with the problem of loneliness in your long-term care and skilled nursing facilities. Free phone companionship provides an immediate benefit to seniors’ mental and physical well-being, as well as relieving staff burden of being the only person the resident can talk to. 

Phone buddy programs existed long before COVID but have come into even greater demand now. Some nationwide programs, such as AARP Community Connections, encourage seniors to call when they’d like to have a conversation. Other  nationwide programs such as Friendly Voices, Forget Me Not or Virtual Companions match a specific volunteer caller to each senior for an ongoing and consistent telephone relationship.

The Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line provides support and intervention for seniors in crisis. Regional phone buddy projects such as United Way (IN) and Catholic Community  Services (WA), can easily be found online for many counties and states. And government agencies including the Massachusetts Council on Aging and the Maryland Department on Aging have developed phone programs to support lonely seniors. 

An 82-year-old woman said she loves hearing from her phone volunteer and misses her between calls. The administrator of her care home in San Mateo, CA, said regular phone calls are “a blessing to our residents.” 

The telephone. So simple, often overlooked. And a powerful tool to reduce social isolation, right now.

Mark Rennella is an editor, researcher and content creator for Harvard Business Publishing. Laura Steuer is a coordinator for Friendly Voices, with experience in counseling and support programs.