It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Kathleen, the moderator for today’s morning Gratitude Group on Well Connected, is taking a friendly roll call to learn the first names of everyone who has phoned into the daily activity line. There are eight participants, all women.
For the next 30 minutes, one by one, each will take a turn to say what she is feeling grateful for on this day. There are no complaints expressed, only small joys they are eager to share with the others in the group who have become friends — although most have never met in person.
Donna, who is in her 80s, starts by saying, “I just called in to listen to all of you. I’m sitting here and looking out my window and it’s a beautiful day. Life is good.”
She goes on to explain that a substitute caregiver had visited the day before with her two little boys, and Donna had encouraged the children to draw some pictures.
“I conned them out of a couple of drawings that I can keep and hang on my refrigerator,” she says. “Some days bring little surprises like that.”
“These groups give people friendship. We all understand each other.”
During the course of the session, talking points veer from the recent birthday of 96-year-old Myrtle who celebrated with a water exercise class at her local outdoor pool to a previously shared recipe for a microwave chocolate cake-for-one in a coffee mug, pronounced “delicious” by those who have tried it. Someone mentions “it’s even better if you add chocolate chips or nuts.”
There is laughter, and loving praise for one another. Of all the things for which they express gratitude, this call-in group is mentioned most frequently.
“I’m so grateful for all of you,” Donna says.
Based on University Without Walls
Well Connected is a free community service of Covia, a California-based nonprofit which operates communities focused on residential and aging services throughout the state. However, Well Connected, with its headquarters in San Francisco, is not limited to Covia community members; currently there are 1,400 older adult participants in 41 states.
Well Connected has its roots in a New York City-based nonprofit called DOROT (the Hebrew word for “generations”), which provides a variety of services for older adults and works to decrease the loneliness and social isolation often experienced by this population.
In 1989, DOROT launched University Without Walls, an interactive, learning-based telephone program. Not long after, Terry Englehart, the now-retired senior resources director for Covia (then called Episcopal Senior Communities), brought the University Without Walls concept to the Oakland, Calif. area.
“Terry started to receive feedback from the participants that while those who were calling in were enjoying the educational aspect of University Without Walls, many of them had health issues, were lonely and were looking for more connection from the conversations,” says Amber Carroll, the director of Well Connected.
So, in 2004, Englehart led the charge to transform the program into Senior Center Without Walls and offer enhanced topic options (including health and wellness) and opportunities for connection. In 2018, when Episcopal Senior Communities became Covia, Senior Center Without Walls was re-branded to Well Connected. In early 2019, an entire Spanish-language Well Connected program was launched.
Something for Everyone
The Gratitude Group is just one of many options for older adults wanting to participate in lively conversations over the phone about everything from writing to music to sports to religion to wellness and much more. Well Connected, which has sessions 365 days a year, is open to anyone over 60; Carroll says the average age of participants is 74.
Typically, there are 10 to 12 people on a toll-free call. The facilitator helps keep the conversation running smoothly, asks questions and makes sure that those who want to weigh in on the discussion can.
A quarterly program guide is mailed out to everyone who registers, along with a comprehensive Participant Calendar of all the events for the quarter and an Activity Checklist. That form is filled out to indicate which groups the participant wants to join and is then returned digitally or by mail.
There really is something for everyone; the Spring 2019 guide was 44 pages long. Session categories include Advocacy, Armchair Travel, Arts, Conversation, Fun & Games, Good Reads, Health & Wellness and Reflections & Religion.
Within each category, there are multiple individual topics as well as date/time options. A few include Book Club, Buddhism, Stretching Your Food Dollar, Bingo, Meditation, Tall Tales, South American Adventure, Electric Sound Collective, Personalized Medicine: Better Aging with Medicinal Cannabis and many, many more.
Here’s an example of a weekly Spring quarter session called Rich in Nature, facilitated by Rich Gerston: Where were you when you saw a spectacular sunset? What wild creatures have you encountered? Share experiences in nature and memories that will spark the positive associations that nature gives us.
There is no limit on the number of Well Connected groups someone can join. After registering, all that’s involved is dialing a phone number and entering an access code. For some of the programs, there is also a video program, easily accessible by computer.
Additionally, Well Connected offers a Museum at Home program where docents from top museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have discussed everything from portraiture to women in art. (For these programs, access to a computer is encouraged.)
‘We Are Always Looking for Positives’
Each call-in group has a facilitator; many of the facilitators started as group participants. They are trained in how to lead a group; there are also monthly facilitator groups where they can share questions or concerns.
“It’s a very collaborative team, and we are very supportive of one another,” says Carroll, adding there are a few facilitators, like herself, who are quite a bit younger than the participants, and help to bring a rich multi-generational aspect to the conversations.
For many facilitators, the people they meet through Well Connected tend to become like family members.
Marie Hamilton, 88, who came to Well Connected as a participant, is now a frequent facilitator (Book Club and Gratitude Group are two groups she often leads). After unexpectedly losing her eyesight in 2013, Hamilton moved from Las Vegas, where she had lived for 30 years, to be with her daughter in northern California.
Finding Well Connected gave Hamilton the opportunity to start building a new social circle. After calling in a few times, Hamilton found that she “was hooked.”
Hamilton participates in the Gratitude Group daily. “It’s nice to start the day with a laugh. And we are always looking for positives.”
This upbeat start to the day results in much more. “These groups give people friendship. We all understand each other,” says Hamilton, who says half of the Well Connected participants live alone. “You don’t know what it’s like to be old until you are.”
A Final Group Led by a Popular Facilitator
Developing those connections have led some members to share very personal details about their own lives.
“One of our most beloved facilitators, Lynnie, was the first participant to become a facilitator and literally led hundreds of groups over the years. She was very gifted; she kind of had a cult following,” says Carroll with a laugh.
One of Lynnie’s more popular sessions was called Keys to Joy, which Carroll refers to as a “loose discussion of philosophy” with sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.
Last year, Lynnie, at 94, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “She wanted to lead a group through the dying process — her session was called Living Through Dying,” Carroll says.
Following Lynnie’s death, an hour-long memorial session was held where callers shared memories of Lynnie’s impact on their lives through Well Connected. (On a quarterly basis, Well Connected offers a memorial service honoring those who have recently died, facilitated by Rev. Laura Darling, Covia senior director of communications and spiritual care.)
‘A Danger in Thinking Tech Is the Only Solution’
An annual participant survey conducted by Well Connected revealed some positive outcomes, says Carroll: 63% responded that their mental health had improved as a result of their involvement with Well Connected and 35% reported an improvement in physical health.
“It’s really an empowering program,” says Carroll. “Most of our folks aren’t online; some have health issues or are homebound. So this allows them to remain engaged.”
It’s the personal nature of the calls and the sound of other voices on the line which Carroll thinks has the greatest impact on Well Connected participants. “There’s a danger in thinking tech is the only solution to connection,” she says. “It is wonderful in some ways, but engagement is really personal.”
Towards the end of the Wednesday Gratitude Group session, one of the callers chimes in to compliment Kathleen, the facilitator.
“Just hearing your voice, just hearing your laugh, Kathleen,” the caller says. “You just don’t know what you mean to me.”
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