Help is near for Arlington senior citizens isolated at home because of ailing health.

Starting in the fall, homebound senior citizens will be able to talk in small groups, discuss what's on their minds with a health expert or a local politician, or listen to a lecture on a topic that interests them -- all without leaving home.

Social worker Barry Lee Coyne, of Arlington, is creating a service to link lonely or bored seniors once a month in telephone conference calls involving a half-dozen people at a time.

"I see it as a way of developing a kind of telephone family," said Coyne, who has dubbed the new service the "Sunshine Line." "Just because you're physically frail doesn't mean you're all washed up. People still need to be respected for the mind."

In a typical conference call, participants will introduce themselves, listen to a speaker give a lecture on a topic that is pertinent to their lives, then chat or ask questions.

Coyne said he hopes to attract "somebody who is curious about other people and somewhat dedicated to their own self-improvement . . . . "

Coyne has enlisted the Arlington Area Agency on Aging for financial support, and the Arlington Parish Council, Arlington Hospital, American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels and Culpeper Gardens Senior Center for potential speakers and the names of possible participants.

"This is not on the top of the priority list of things to be done for seniors, but it's another way of making life more tolerable for homebound seniors," said Barbara Fenton, a former chairwoman of the Arlington Commission on Aging who volunteers for the Agency on Aging.

Finding isolated seniors "is going to be the problem. There's a vast number out there and it's surprising how difficult they are to find," she said.

As an extension of their involvement in Sunshine Line, homebound seniors also may find out how to take advantage of other services available to them.

"They might need someone to come in for chore duties, or they might need advice on getting certain medical care forms," Fenton said.

Coyne is modeling Sunshine Line after a service he started in Queens, N.Y., several years ago when he was the social services director of a senior center. He started the service because he was concerned that essential information about changes in the Social Security system might not reach some of his former clients who had become homebound. Coyne arranged for a speaker to inform isolated seniors of the legal changes through conference calls.

"This crusading zeal just got to me," Coyne said. Nutritionists, health experts, elected officials and other speakers soon followed.

Among those who spoke to seniors in conference calls in New York were two members of Congress. "This allows people who can't go visit the congressman's office access to the seat of power," Coyne said.

Many seniors became friendly after meeting over the phone, he recalled. Two women older than 90 who met through a conference call reassured each other by calling one another every morning.

"Friendship was a fringe benefit," Coyne said. "You can't conduct a conversation with a television."

For more information or to find out how to apply to participate, call 243-1748.