PORTLAND — A Greater Portland social service organization has found that sometimes just a simple phone call can be all that is needed to help seniors feel connected and less isolated during the pandemic.

The Senior Companion Program, operated by The Opportunity Alliance, has 22 volunteers working with 80-90 homebound clients per week in Cumberland and York counties, but program Director Susan Lavigne said she knows there are more people who could benefit.

“We know we have the capacity to take on new people interested in calls or interested in this type of service,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the seniors were paired with volunteers, 55 and older, who would visit them weekly to socialize and help them with daily task. Last March, The Opportunity Alliance stopped the in-person visits and switched to phone calls.

“It was like a door slammed in our faces. It happened so quickly,” said Liz Paige, a Windham resident and program volunteer for the last 14 years. “Our clients felt that loss of not having us come see them, but we’ve tried to keep the same schedule (for the phone calls).”

Lavigne said although it is not the same as in-person interactions, the phone calls provide “a vital service during the pandemic.”

“For our clients, the senior companion may be the only non-medical person they speak to during the week,” she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Lavigne said, much of the conversation between volunteers and clients centered on how to get food and medication and on clearing up misinformation about the virus. Now, it has shifted to how and where to get a vaccine or about missing loved ones.

“A lot of them are talking about family, their isolation and the need to see their children or grandchildren,” Lavigne said.

To help build connection beyond the phone calls, Paige has been sending “thinking of you” cards to her clients and this week sent out two birthday cards.

Whether in person or over the phone, Paige said her goal with her clients is simple: Keep them smiling.

“A successful day for me is when I have been able to make one of my clients laugh,” she said.

The program’s in-person visits will resume when the Maine Center for Disease Control says it is safe to do so, Lavigne said, but until then she’d like to sign up more clients for the wellness calls.

For more information about participating in the Senior Companion Program, go to opportunityalliance.org/senior-companion-program.

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