When Nanetta Washington of Hayward died a few years ago, her best friends held a touching memorial service for her. They talked about how much she had meant to them and how much they missed her.
The remarkable thing is that she never met any of them face-to-face. Nor have they ever met each other. The entire service was conducted as a conference call on the phone.
They were all participants in Senior Center Without Walls, a program that offers homebound seniors dozens of telephone discussion groups, classes and support groups each week, accessible from the comfort of their own homes. AND IT'S ABSOLUTELY FREE!
The idea is so simple, it's brilliant. All they have to do is call in at the designated time and join the conversation. And it's so low-tech, anyone can do it. I mean, everyone knows how to operate a telephone, right?
SCWW's new catalog for the summer is just out, featuring groups ranging from the light-hearted (jokes, pets, food, knitting, movies and real-time games of Bingo and Boggle) to the serious (depression support, coping with loss, combating elder fraud and living with chronic pain).
On Thursday mornings you can join "Armchair Bird Watching," where you'll discuss the birds you see in your own back yard.
Later that day, try "What's The Verdict?" where you'll be the judge and jury in a discussion of real-life but unusual law cases.
Or how about a virtual tour of Elvis Presley's Graceland, where facilitator Susan Lee Linderman will share stories and photos (mailed to participants beforehand) of her visit to The King's eccentric home last May?
Or an "Intergenerational Pow Wow" with some young people for a fun exchange of ideas about new technology, slang expressions, changing fashion and etiquette?
I could go on and on, but there isn't room here to list all the offerings, much less tell you details. Call 1-877-797-7299, and they'll send you a catalog.
Senior Center Without Walls was founded in 2004 by gerontologist Terry Englehart, who serves as its executive director.
Each group has about 15-20 people signed up, but the actual number of participants on any given day is usually about half that amount.
"We encourage them to go out whenever they get the opportunity," she says. "We tell them, 'Don't stay home to make the phone call.' We don't want to be an excuse for them not to go out."
In 2006 Episcopal Senior Communities and St. Paul's Church assumed co-sponsorship of Senior Center Without Walls as an outreach project. But the program is strictly nondenominational, with participants from all faiths and none.
As I said, the service is free. But SCWW still has to pay for the calls; so if you want to contribute, please send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Ave., Oakland CA 94610.
And if you know anyone who is 50 or over who could use this wonderful service, please tell them about it.
After Washington's memorial service, her husband told Englehart his wife had been depressed because of her illness, and her world kept getting smaller. First it shrunk down to her house, then her bedroom, and finally her bed.
"But these people brought her out of her depression," he said, "and gave her a new world again."
Spread the word.