Seniors isolated amid coronavirus measures find help through new chat and crisis line
Kimberly Lewis had planned to launch the GoldenTalk senior chat and crisis line May 1.
Then the COVID-19 coronavirus happened. Now, while people of all ages are socially isolating to try to contain the virus, senior citizens remain among the most vulnerable to serious effects — both from the virus and from isolation.
For the record:6:45 PM, Apr. 16, 2020
A 2018 AARP study determined that prolonged isolation carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that social isolation affects an estimated 8 million adults older than 50.
Lewis had planned to make a pre-launch announcement of GoldenTalk at the Aging Into the Future Conference, which was scheduled for April 4 but postponed. But the platform was ready, so it was launched early, on March 23.
The 24-hour line serves Californians 60 and older. So far it has volunteers who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Farsi, Tagalog, Russian and German — with a priority to recruit speakers of other languages.
Families of seniors also can request regular wellness calls for their loved ones.
Because Lewis has worked in Los Angeles and Orange counties — she lived in Costa Mesa before moving to downtown L.A. last year for this project — the team is most knowledgeable about resources in those counties, though the goal is to expand its connections statewide.
“We don’t just say ‘Call this number,’” Lewis said. “We tell them we’ll get back to them within 24 hours, and this gives me a day to find the resource, call myself, get through … and then two days later, follow up. We go the extra steps. We’re taking care of seniors to make sure they get the best care possible and aren’t just passed along.”
Ever since she was a Police Explorer cadet for the Compton Police Department at age 14, Lewis has had a passion for working with seniors. She remembers visiting older adults in nursing homes, baking them cookies and cheering them up during the holidays.
But it wasn’t until decades later — after her three children, whom she raised as a single mother, became adults — that she first got the idea to start a nonprofit for seniors called the I Did Something Good Today Foundation.
When she was working at Volunteers of America Los Angeles managing a homeless women’s shelter, she saw people “dumping off their mothers and grandmothers as if they were dumping off stray animals.”
As horrified as she was by that, she was equally concerned about how difficult it was for her and her staff to figure out how to help them. Their own shelter was already at capacity.
“I was calling agencies that’d say, ‘Let me give you a referral,’ and I’d think, ‘How do you think I got your information? It was from a referral,’” she recalled. “‘Aren’t you supposed to be specializing in aging? What is going on?’ That was my first inkling that there was a lack of resources, a lack of attention on seniors.”
The I Did Something Good Today Foundation, formed in 2018, started with the Adopt a Grandparent program, in which volunteers commit to calling a senior citizen a few times a week as well as meet monthly for a group activity, often with tickets to events donated by concert venues, restaurants or sports teams.
One night she remembered that when she worked in the police department in her 20s, older folks often would call because they felt lonely. So she decided to start the chat line.
Lewis began with 10 volunteers recruited through VolunteerMatch. Less than a month later, she has almost 200.
The volunteers include two from Italy who are helping with Spanish-language calls, a group of expatriate mothers from London whose kids are still in the United States, and many from New York who are volunteering to talk to seniors in California even as their state has become a hot spot for the coronavirus.
She also has trained employees from Verizon’s corporate social responsibility department, students from USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and members of the Red Cross’ AmeriCorps program.
Laura Granados, an AmeriCorps member, heard a radio ad for GoldenTalk and contacted Lewis. Now, all 80 of this year’s members plan to volunteer.
The AmeriCorps program engages adults in public service work with the goal to educate about disaster preparedness, which is extra important for seniors at this time, said Andrea Ritter, disaster program manager for the Los Angeles division of the Red Cross.
GoldenTalk also has a team of licensed therapists working as “love coaches” so volunteers can direct callers who need more specialized care to someone trained to, for example, talk someone through a panic attack or provide advice on how to cope with anxiety.
Last weekend, Lewis started looking into incorporating delivery services.
She and her daughter Geniva Myricks drove from Los Angeles to Riverside on Saturday to deliver water, paper towels and toilet paper to a couple in their 90s.
“I don’t ever ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” Lewis said. “Whoever needs something, as long as we have it in stock and I can take a drive there, we will get it to them. I can’t just sit by and have a 90-year-old couple unable to fend for themselves.”
So far, Lewis is funding GoldenTalk entirely herself. Two corporate donations that were supposed to come the week Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated shutdowns of all nonessential businesses have been put on hold.
Telzio has donated its telecommunications platform during the pandemic, and the Collective in downtown L.A. has donated office space for a year.
But the foundation is ineligible for nonprofit grants because it is volunteer-based.
“You have to have two or more employees,” Lewis said. “But we don’t operate that way because we didn’t have the funds to start out that way.”
Having recently quit her job at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to run her group full time, Lewis hopes to eventually have enough funding to provide housing for seniors. Combating social isolation is just the beginning.
“I think people are realizing it now that they’ve had to experience isolation themselves that human connection is real and does a lot of good,” Lewis said. “It helps with cognitive abilities and happiness and all the things feeling loved and cared about does too. Those things are huge, and our seniors need that.”
The GoldenTalk chat line number is (888) 604-6533. For information on how to donate or volunteer, visit ididsomethinggoodtoday.org/goldentalk.