Only a Call Away: Geri Pals Volunteers Create Connections Over the Phone

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Friendly. Patient. Understanding.

Those are the three qualities that make a Geri Pals volunteer successful.

Geri Pals pairs homebound seniors, often living with memory loss or dementia, with a volunteer who will contact them once or twice a week via phone or video call. Volunteers receive training regarding dementia and guidance around conversations. These calls offer seniors a positive connection and outlet for conversation, which can be vital to their well-being.

“Social isolation is a huge issue we see with our homebound older adults,” explains Justin Ayala, manager, Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program. “This kind of companionship, even in the form of a phone call, can significantly help the mental health of older adults who require social stimulation. Volunteers, like Myles, help create meaningful community connection and engagement.”

Myles Gaffney, a retired math teacher and former employee of the Springfield Credit Bureau, has been a longstanding volunteer with Baystate Health. He spent nearly 10 years volunteering at the Baystate Pain Management Center at 3400 Main Street in Springfield, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person volunteer activities were paused, he was eager to continue doing something for Baystate Medical Center remotely. Baystate Health’s Volunteer Program connected him to the Geri Pals program one year ago and has been an active participant ever since.

“We’re reaching out on a friendly basis,” adds Myles. “We don’t talk medical terms, and we stay away from the heavy issues of the day. I have a client that loves the NFL, so we talk football a lot. Another man loved to fish. We try and keep our focus on positive things.”

If a patient is having a bad day, Myles has plenty of strategies up his sleeve to turn things around, thanks to the training he was provided by the Geri Pals program which teaches best methods for keeping interactions positive and helpful. As part of the process, volunteers make their first call to a client alongside a trainer, who later offers personalized notes and suggestions for success.

Understanding how to create a pleasant experience for patients doesn’t need to be intimidating to prospective volunteers, according to Myles. Basics like talking slowly and clearly go a long way. Clients who may not be able to get to the phone the first time it rings will feel supported and unrushed if their Geri Pal leaves a message and calls back in a few minutes. Above all, Myles says to “keep things light and easy, and if the patient wants to cut it short, they’re in charge.”

While clients may get the most benefit out of Myles’ company, he is finding both joy and life lessons from the connections the Geri Pals program brings.

“I learned from this program patience and understanding,” he says. “These people have been through a lot in their lives. They are senior citizens, and they’ve seen a lot. This program reaches people who otherwise wouldn’t have had a phone call from a relative, a neighbor, or a friend, and I see how it helps them. It encourages me, too, and keeps my spirits up.”

Myles said that the greatest satisfaction he gets is when, at the end of a phone call, he asks a client if they want to talk again next week, and they respond enthusiastically. He was touched by another client who was having a tough time and was brought to tears when he offered encouragement and a kind word to her.

It’s these human-to-human connections made between Baystate Health volunteers and patients that make all the difference.

“You’re giving a person a chance to smile a little bit, laugh a bit, and talk about their lives and family,” Myles says. “That little extra support helps them know that Baystate Health cares, and it makes a lot of difference.”

The Geri Pals program is always looking for more volunteers, particularly those who speak Spanish. Visit our Volunteering page to get more info and volunteer requirements for Geri Pals and other volunteer opportunities.

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