Program reaching out to elderly may fall short

Seniors Keep in Touch needs infusion of funds

Carroll County

August 12, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Seniors Keep in Touch, a program that provides safety checks and reassurance to hundreds of homebound elderly Carroll County residents, is scrambling for money to continue its daily phone project.

The organization, which calls 75 elderly people every morning, relies on grants and contributions to amass more than $30,000 in cash, most of which is for part-time salaries. Carroll's Bureau of Aging, which gives the program office space and phones at Westminster Senior Center, cannot include Seniors Keep in Touch in its annual budget until fiscal 2005.

The community has been supportive, but the program requires much fund raising and grant writing to continue. The calls have saved lives, provided meals, housing and comfort to those who have few remaining friends and family.

"We have short-term solutions, but what we need is something long-term," said Patricia A. Supik, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County, which manages the program. "Our challenge is how to keep this going until it becomes part of the county budget. We are totally committed to continuing our search for funds."

Participants can attest to the value of a daily phone call that for many is a lifeline. About 9 every morning, the phone rings at George Duke's home in Woodbine. The 81-year-old retired farmer knows Patricia M. Owen will be on the line, asking how he is, if he has taken his medications and if he has something to eat.

Owen, project coordinator for Seniors Keep in Touch, engages those she calls "my seniors" in friendly conversation and tries to assess their well-being.

"They keep after me to eat, even got me Meals on Wheels," Duke said. "They say they can tell if I am getting weaker by my voice. They really have become my friends and I depend on them."

The program, established in 1997 with a United Way grant, grew from a survey of seniors who said they wanted to live independently and safely in their homes. The service is available to those ages 60 and older, a population that is more than 22,000 in Carroll and projected to be more than double that by 2020.

Many counties have senior reassurance programs, but Carroll's daily contact schedule is unique, Supik said. Baltimore County has 120 volunteers who provide double the number of seniors with weekly calls and visits. Howard County is trying to restart a program that fell by the wayside for lack of volunteers.

"I hope we can bring it back," said Pam Bilal, Howard County senior information and assistance coordinator. "There certainly is a need."

Until her death two years ago, Virginia Peregoy of Sykesville was on Owen's call list.

"She was not afraid of dying, only afraid that her death would not be discovered for days and her pets would suffer," Owen said.

"When she didn't answer our calls, we contacted 911. They found that she had died in her wheelchair. Her dogs were at her side. It was heartbreaking, but we helped eliminate her fears and helped her die in peace."

Owen and her assistant Delfina Sabella make calls Monday through Saturday, but both have made Sunday and holiday calls. If they fail to reach a senior after three attempts, they refer to a list of family contacts or if need be, emergency services. When Duke told Sabella that he had fallen and could not move, she immediately called 911.

"The SKIT program saved my life," said Duke, who had broken his hip.

Owen is so in tune with her seniors that she often can sense a problem, she said. She called Isabella Hollenbaugh's son when the 93-year-old's voice sounded raspy.

"Patty told me she didn't like the way I sounded in the morning and that she thought I sounded worse in the afternoon," Hollenbaugh said.

Hollenbaugh spent five days in the hospital with pneumonia. She is back at her Westminster home now and taking Owen's daily 10 a.m. call.

"It is only a brief call, but it means the world to people," she said.

Owen poses standard questions and knows each senior well enough to ask about their children, grandchildren and pets.

"I ask if they are taking their meds, if they have had a good night's sleep, if there is food in the fridge," Owen said.

Doris Bingham, 91, and nearly blind, rarely leaves her Union Bridge home. Her conversations with Owen frequently last longer than the usual three minutes.

"I know I chat too long about everything, even the weather," Bingham said. "I look forward to her call and I even try to give her advice."

Bingham mentioned a rotting front porch that she feared might curtail her Meals on Wheels deliveries. Owen contacted a group of teen-age volunteers who quickly repaired the porch and added a ramp and a roof.

"Patty knows how to connect seniors with the services they need," Supik said. "It is really like magic. These are proud people, but they will tell Patty what they need. She is working right there in the senior center and can go right to the resources."

For many, the reassuring voice on the line will be the only human contact of the day. Growing numbers of requests occasionally have created a waiting list.

SKIT made more than 9,000 calls in the first six months of this year at no charge to the seniors. Many of the seniors live on incomes of less than $10,000 a year.

For Owen, "it is a reward every day," she said. "I try to give them a hug through the phone and they give me a hug right back."

One senior shows his appreciation through music. Don Hill, 87, signs off every call playing his guitar and singing a country tune.

"I so appreciate the calls that it's my way of saying thanks," Hill said. "I have no family close by. Hardly anybody comes to see me. It is really good to know somebody is thinking about me."

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