A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Good Call

(Above: Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating his invention in 1892)

Three years ago, I reported on the most extraordinary memorial service I ever encountered. It was for Nanetta Washington of Hayward, who died after a long illness in 2007. Her service was attended by many of her closest friends.
The extraordinary part was that she had never met any of them face-to-face. And they never met each other, either. The entire service was conducted over the phone as a conference call.
They were participants in Senior Center Without Walls, an Oakland-based program that offers dozens of telephone discussion groups, classes and support groups every week to homebound seniors throughout Northern California
And SCWW is constantly expanding the number and variety of groups.
There are armchair travel groups, including aural tours of Malta, Morocco, Israel and the Tilden Park Botanic Garden.
There's an armchair birdwatching group, when an ornithologist helps callers identify the birds they see outside their windows.
There are groups for poets, animal lovers, movie buffs, food fans, joke tellers, and needle artists (I mean hobbies like knitting and crocheting, not tattoos).
In the weekly "What's the Verdict?" group, participants play sleuth in a discussion of real-life but very unusual law cases. In the monthly Socrates Café, they discuss basic philosophical questions such is "What is an authentic life?"
There are also support groups on aging, depression, anxiety, coping with loss, weight management, environmental sensitivities, bipolar disorder and living with vision loss.
Not to mention bingo, Boggle, spelling bees, sing-alongs and my favorite group, "Senior Center Without Words," when people call in and say nothing; they just listen to soothing music and do whatever they want, whether meditating or exercising.
And for non-English speakers, there are groups in Spanish and Chinese.
But beyond the good times and useful information, Senior Center Without Walls offers those who use it something far more valuable: a reconnection to the world.
That was evident at Washington's memorial service.
"Her husband said she had been depressed because of her illness, and her world kept getting smaller," says SCWW's executive director, Terry Englehart. "First it shrunk down to her house, then her bedroom, then her bed. But these people brought her out of her depression and gave her a new world again."
Is this a great idea or what? Here we have a serious problem: old people being cut off from the world because of illness or mobility problems. And here's a perfect solution.
The best part is that it's so low-tech. I mean, who doesn't know how to use the telephone?
And it's all free. Let me repeat that: F-R-E-E.
SCWW is run out of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland by Englehart and her tiny, two-person staff, aided by dozens of volunteers who facilitate the discussion groups and call people to remind them they have a conference call coming up later in the day.
The major expense is the conference calls. If you'd like to help, please send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Street, Oakland CA 94610.
But the real reason I'm writing this is to get the word out to the people who could use this wonderful service. If you - or anyone you know - are over 50 and homebound, SCWW can be a new lease on life.
Call toll-free 877-797-7299, and SCWW will mail you a schedule. Then sign up for the groups that interest you most and go for it.