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Study: You Light Up My Life

 

Communities in many countries, including Canada, have implemented telephone reassurance services for older adults, and with good reason.

British scientists have found that these low-cost programs have a huge positive impact on older people’s lives.

The assessment study was led by Dr. Mima Cattan of Northumbria University (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.) and was part of a larger study of a national befriending scheme for older people across the U.K. It was funded by Help the Aged, U.K. and sponsored by Zurich Insurance.

The study involved 40 men and women, ranging in age from their mid-50s to early 90s.

The findings revealed:

  • why older adults valued the program;
  • the impact on their health and well-being; and
  • their hopes for the service in the future.

The study appeared online in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community (November 29, 2010).

Why people valued the program

Participants gave thumbs up to the service for three reasons:

  • it offered a reason to get up in the morning;
  • it nurtured a sense of belonging; and
  • it fostered community involvement.

Life is worth living

The older people were often house-bound due to poor health. The telephone service hooked them up with others.

As one 73-year-old woman explained:

It brightens up your day when you’ve got nobody. It makes you feel better, it really does. If you didn’t look forward to it, it wouldn’t matter would it? I’ve got nobody, no neighbours. I’m on my own all the time. It’s nice to know you’ve got somebody connected with you.

Sense of belonging

Participants also reported a sense of belonging since they joined the service, especially those without family.

Said one 82-year-old woman:

It makes you understand that you’re part of the world and there are other people who are interested in your world. You’re not on your own. I do think an awful lot of [the caller]. It certainly brightens my day and sometimes it will be the only call I get all day. Apart from having more calls I can’t see what else I can hope for.

Researchers discovered that participants made a distinction between telephone friends and other people, including family.

As one 83-year-old man put it:

I think sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who is not a close relative because it’s a voice that you associate at the end of the line and so you can really pour anything out. It gives a sense of belonging as well. When your partner dies, that’s it. I didn’t have a clue who anybody else was. The funniest joke in the world is not funny if you have nobody to tell it to. You can share with somebody and it gives you an incentive again to get up and do something rather than staying at home. It’s going to help you forget your aches and pains.

Community involvement

The older adults also credited their telephone friends with growth in self-confidence. Some participants began to do their own shopping and even socialize with people at the local pub or day center.

Impact on health and well-being

As for health, the older adults reported the service had a positive impact on their physical and emotional well-being. "If you don’t get depressed you’re bound to feel better physically," one 68-year-old woman said. "It’s when you get depressed that you don’t want to go out or do anything."

Participants were also less fearful of becoming ill or dying. "I’m going to be safe now I think with her help," one 76-year-old woman remarked. "Otherwise, I felt awful and I felt life ain’t worth living any longer."

Future service

Overall, the study found older people wanted flexibility and choice in the types of services available to them.

They identified three main needs for the current service:

  • ordinary conversation;
  • the chance to make friendships; and
  • opportunities to give something back.

Everyday conversation

The findings showed older adults appreciated opportunities for a laugh and a good chat.

Said one 77-year-old woman:

They talk about topical things and if you’re lonely it gives you something to think about, and if I’ve got any worries I can always tell them. I couldn’t speak more highly of them. . . .

Friendship

Above all, older people wanted opportunities to make new friends, the study found. For many, their telephone friend was the only person whom they could confide in and rely on.

"They’re always there. I’ve only got to pick up the phone," one 73-year-old man said.

The participants wanted the service extended so they could receive more telephone calls, and many said they would like to meet their telephone friend in person.

Giving back

As well, the older people wanted opportunities to give back. They offered tips on how to publicize the service. They encouraged others to join up and some even became volunteers themselves.

Program packs powerful punch

This low-cost program won the hearts of older adults. The researchers explained: "[The program] did not set out to remind them of their problems (even though they did talk about them), but rather to emphasize that they were still part of a community and had something to offer within that community."