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Weekly check-ins for wellness: Ramped-up ALTCEW program offers calls for isolated disabled and senior residents

 (MOLLY QUINN / THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
(MOLLY QUINN / THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It’s just one phone call or perhaps two conversations a week, yet volunteers hear that those talks are often the only human contact for about 80 to 100 isolated residents.

Check and Connect is a newly ramped-up program of Aging & Long Term Care of Eastern Washington with a goal to reduce social isolation and victim abuse among senior and disabled populations during the pandemic.

Previously named Senior Reassurance, the program began in March but more recently was retooled and renamed. With updates done by January, the agency has put out a new call for those served by ALTCEW to register if they’re interested in the weekly wellness calls, which includes people who are disabled and seniors ages 65-plus.

“We are officially up and running and taking on new clients very quickly,” said Kari Stevens, ALTCEW’s Community Living Connections director. “It’s amazing the need that is coming out of this program.”

The agency also needed to build up its volunteer base leading up to the January relaunch, she said.

Participants can register by calling a direct line at (509) 960-7281. Other options to find information are at the agency’s website altcew.org and through its Facebook page.

Once signed up, participants will receive weekly phone calls from a trained volunteer at intervals of once or twice a week, or even biweekly, depending on a resident’s preference.

ALCEW leaders saw a need for the program because of rising cases of isolation and related issues among the population it serves since the threat of COVID-19 began, Stevens said.

“It became clear very quickly upon the pandemic quarantine that we were going to have a lot of folks with no contact with the outside world – either they were too vulnerable, or they had mobility issues,” Stevens said.

“It really shut their world down, and, as you can imagine, that creates mental health issues, and then resources are not accessed, self-care is not taken and people become extremely lonely. Sometimes, people can even be afraid to stay within their own homes and start looking at facilities instead.”

The mission of Aging and Long Term Care is to keep people “safely and independently” in their own homes for as long as possible, she said. “It really met up with our mission statement, and the timing was necessary because of the pandemic. We couldn’t sit idle with so many people suffering from isolation.”

Some CARES Act funding helped start the program while the agency understood it would need to absorb future costs, Stevens said. “We’ve managed to do that to sustain the program.”

More volunteers needed

More volunteers for the program are needed. A background check is required, and orientation and training take a day or two.

“We are always taking volunteers if anyone is interested in assisting with this program and wants to help telephonically from their homes,” Stevens said. “Their avenues to get involved are the same – call the number or go on our website.

“There is a background check required because it’s obviously working with a vulnerable population. Other than that, you’re given a brief orientation, and the program coordinator connects with you on a weekly basis to see how everyone is doing and whether or not we need to make referrals internally or externally to support someone.”

The time commitment is up to the volunteer, she said, whether the desire is to support two clients a week or 15 residents.

Check and Connect has seven volunteers, and six more are training and nearly done. It has one paid employee along with a Washington State University student intern who is completing a master’s in social work.

The program currently is serving as many as 100 people, Stevens said, but the number grows each day and fluctuates.

Whether contact is twice a week or less often, the volunteers’ calls are geared to be friendly and as a check-in on any needs.

“I call it a phone pen pal, almost,” she said. “It’s a volunteer who checks in with a person, starts a dialogue, has a conversation about what do you need, how are you feeling, those sorts of things. It helps us identify resource needs or potential safety hazards, and, at the same time, we’re helping people with their mental health while they’re isolated – so they kind of become friends with purpose.

“Because it’s telephonic only, it’s completely safe during the quarantine. It’s low-tech, which means anybody has access, so it reduces all those barriers we see so frequently in our aging population.”

Two recent successes

Stevens gave two recent examples of how the program has helped.

One person registered in the program has multiple sclerosis. “This person is somewhat terrified to be so isolated right now,” Stevens said because the client is prone to falls and “medically bad days.”

“To have someone calling in to check on a frequent basis has alleviated that fear and has allowed this person to continue to function inside their home independently,” she said.

After another volunteer forged a good relationship, one resident shared having an overwhelming amount of medical bills without the ability to pay them. The volunteer connected the individual to agency support and a referral to the Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors for Medicare counseling.

“This person was able to immediately get help in filing for additional assistance on their Medicare plan to cover some back bills and anything coming up in the future. And it alleviated stress.”

The calls typically last about 15 minutes. “But for a lot of people, they’re telling us that these are the only external conversations they’re having all week long, which is with this volunteer who is calling to check in.”

The program is able to refer people into additional and more long-term services if needed, so the intent is to have the program continue for some time. “We have it sustainable right now, so our intent is to continue it for as long as it’s needed.”

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