When Amber Carroll was running the San Francisco Transitional Care Program, which helps old people make the move from acute hospital care back to their own homes, she regularly referred her clients to Senior Center Without Walls, an Oakland-based telephone community for homebound seniors living throughout the Bay Area.
Think about it. Being old can be a lonely experience. It's not just that your friends are dying; your whole world is dying. The cultural touchstones of your youth are disappearing from the scene, and young people don't know what you're talking about when you mention people or things that, to you, are as common as the air you breathe.
But it's even worse when illness limits your mobility to the point where you're stuck at home all the time.
That's where Senior Center Without Walls comes in. It offers dozens of conference call conversations each week, ranging from the practical – fall prevention, food safety, Medicare, end of life issues – to the profound, including meditation, daily gratitude, and a lively philosophy discussion group called Socrates Café.
Plus: trivia contests, singalongs, Bingo, Boggle, pet tales (or is that pet tails?), armchair travel tours of far-off places conducted by volunteers who have just returned, and "D.J. Jeff's All Request Show," when SCWW staffer Jeff Cheung spins stax'o'wax ranging from Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vinton to Etta James and Devo. Whatever your interest, chances are SCWW has a chat group for it.
And here's the best part: Not only is it low-tech – who doesn't know how to dial a telephone? – it's totally free, thanks to the generosity of SCWW's sponsor, Episcopal Senior Communities, which pays for the calls.
Carroll was so impressed with the good that Senior Center Without Walls was doing for her clients, when she heard a few months ago that the position of director was opening up, she applied for it – and won the job.
"I've been referring people to Senior Center Without Walls for so long," she says, "it's a thrill to join this organization I've admired for years."
Senior Center Without Walls purposely keeps the paid staff as small as possible in order to devote more money to the people it serves. But there are still some expenses that can't be avoided, including the cost of the calls. So if you'd like to help, send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Avenue, Oakland CA 94610.
A few years ago one of SCWW's clients, Nanetta Washington of Hayward, died, and all the friends she had made over the phone held a memorial service for her – over the phone, of course. They comforted each other and talked about what a great person she was and how much they valued her friendship.
"Those conference calls made all the difference in her life," her husband told me. "After she got sick, her life shrunk down to our house, then to our bedroom, and finally down to our bed. Then she found out about Senior Center Without Walls, and her world opened up again."
If you know someone over 60 who might enjoy participating in a SCWW group, please show them this column and tell them to call toll-free 877-797-7299 to sign up. As Nanetta Washington's husband said, it can make all the difference in the world.