Ten years ago, gerontologist Terry Englehart was working as senior resources director at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland, matching elders with services that could help them.
"In helping these people, I realized that no matter what their problem, they all shared one thing in common: They were really isolated," she says. "And there were not enough services to help them break through that isolation. What could I do?"
Then she heard about a program in New York called University Without Walls," which offers classes to seniors via telephone.
Bingo! She got a brilliant idea: Why not set up telephone discussion groups for homebound seniors? After all, who doesn't know how to use a telephone?
Thus was born Senior Center Without Walls, a free telephone community for California elders.
She started out with only six people talking once a week. Today, Senior Center Without Walls offers more than 60 discussion groups each week, 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 feathered friends you see out your window.
This winter and spring, SCWW will offer armchair trips to Italy, Ireland, Tunisia and Prague, featuring virtual tours by volunteers who have just returned from those places.
Senior Center Without Walls has been honored by the American Society of Aging, the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, and the Jefferson Award for Public Service. It's hard to think of another organization that does so much good for so many people for so little cost.
SCWW is sponsored by Episcopal Senior Communities, but it is strictly non-denominational. And IT'S FREE! All you have to do is call 510-444-5974 (or 1-877-797-7200 toll-free), and they'll send you a catalog.
Despite Episcopal Communities' generous sponsorship, Terry and her tiny staff – volunteer coordinator Amy Schaible and program administrator Susan Lee Linderman – still have a few expenses to meet, including the cost of the calls, so if you'd like to contribute, send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Avenue, Oakland CA 94610.
You can help in other ways, too, by sharing your own life skills. For instance, Sarah Kidder of Oakland, who is in her thirties, conducts a weekly group called Tech Talk, where she demystifies the Internet for seniors.
In a little less than 10 years, Terry Englehart has accomplished a wonderful thing. She has liberated hundreds of seniors whose ailments confined them first to their homes, then to their bedrooms, and finally to their beds. She has broken through their isolation and made life worth living again.
Alas, last week Terry called it a career. She and her husband Steve will enjoy a well-earned retirement, starting with a long-delayed trip to Italy.
But Amy and Susan are still there. And SCWW has found the perfect person to succeed Terry: Krista Brown, a longtime worker in the senior care field who is brimming with enthusiasm about maintaining Terry's legacy and taking it to the next level.
If you know a homebound senior who could benefit from this wonderful service, please let them know about it. You'll be doing them a big favor.