The daily ring of the telephone is a sign to hundreds of homebound elderly that someone cares. Without that call, some could spend all day, day after day, without exchanging a word with another person. The awaited calls are made by volunteers in a program variously known as Telecare, Call-a-Person, Telassure and other names.
There is a long history to programs of this kind. Friends and neighbors in every community have long made such calls to check on the elderly persons living alone: sometimes the purpose was grim - a call to learn if the person survived the night or had injured himself.
Organized programs today include happier purposes - to bring cheer and reassurance to the isolated. Callers are familiar with the community services available, and may be able to set up transportation to nutrition sites or to a senior center or, if need be, to arrange for Meals on Wheels to deliver food.
In Montgomery County, Telecare is administered by the Outreach Section of the Division of Elder Affairs (279-1057). Nearly 100 calls are made every day. Sometimes the need is ongoing and sometimes it is temporary as when someone is homebound only while recuperating from illness or injury. Calls are made by prior arrangement for those who request them.
Volunteers are givn training that includes briefing on services available, some suggestions for establishing comfortable and comforting relationships and guidelines for handling situations that suggest the possibility of an emergency. When there is no answer to a call made at the usual time, a step-by-step procedure is followed to determine if emergency help is needed.
Many volunteers are themselves elderly; some have become callers after they had received the service. It is not unusual for enduring friendships to develop. To help both parties, an attempt is made to match volunteers with persons they call in interests and background.
One of the volunteers in the Telecare program is Hazel Denmark, of Gaithersburg, age 60 and totally blind. She regularly calls three blind people who live alone, and considers the calls "a highlight of my day." Aware of the tendency for some elderly or handicapped persons to remain apart, she urges everyone "to get out and do things." Denmark herself regularly goes to a nearby nutrition center on the Elderbus, attends church and serves as president of a fellowship club.
Telecare was created by the Commission on Aging. Commissions are composed of appointed area residents, mostly retired, who serve without pay. Their purpose is to promote better understanding of the problems of the aging. They plan, monitor and on occasion conduct activities to increase the well-being of the elderly.
Frances Rapley, of Silver Spring, was one of the early volunteers. She regularly called four elderly persons, and when she had to be away on a trip to England, she suggested that her people call each other. On her return she learned that this system - elderly calling elderly - worked quite satisfactorily. The callers enjoyed the work because they had common experiences to share.
The counterpart of Telecare is Call-a-person in Prince George's County, administered in the RSVP Division of the Department on Aging, (350-6666, ext 403). The program is regarded as one of the first in the district that includes all of Maryland and neighboring states.
There are now more than 80 volunteers, each making about three calls every day. Callers and persons being called are generally "introduced" to each other in an attempt to establish a bond for ongoing communication. As the program coordinator, Happy Garcia, explained, "There must be something in common, the correct personal chemistry, for the program to be successful."
A similar program called Telassure is conducted in the Washington area by the Jewish Council for the Aging, (881-8782). Volunteers include some who have skills in foreign languages. Susan Greenspan, the council's information referral and outreach specialist, believes that Telassure "helps satisfy the desire of older people to live independently by eliminating some of the dangers that living alone entails."
The City of Rockville is organizing a telephone reassurance program, and is looking for volunteers.The city is being divided into districts and volunteers will work in areas near their homes.
Howard County has had a program called Telecheck for six years, telephone 730-7697. The program is coordinated by Miriam Charney, a volunteer. Expansion is needed and anticipated as more persons volunteer.