Bay Life

Vol. 8, No. 29
July 20-26, 2000
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In Anne Arundel County, Safe by Phone
by Christy Grimes

John Ardeeser didn’t mean to upset anyone. He just forgot to check in with his service before taking his little diabetic dog to the vet. Imagine how much trouble you can get into just by forgetting a routine phone call: When Ardeeser and dog came home, the police were waiting for him.

It all made for a fretful morning for the volunteers at Telephone Reassurance, who await Ardeeser’s normally faithful 7:20am call. “They know who it is even before picking up the phone,” Ardeeser says. Widowed for eight years, he lives alone surrounded not by family and friends but by four acres of woods. He daily puts in a call to Telephone Reassurance. “Once every day,” he says, “someone knows I’m alive.”

Users — called ‘clients’ (though the service is free through the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, Anne Arundel County Department of Aging) — either call in like Ardesser or, as most prefer, get a call at a fixed time.

“It’s low-tech but friendly,” says program director Diane Turpin. By checking on elderly folk daily, Telephone Reassurance enables them to live in their homes longer. “We call it Telephone Reassurance because it’s such a comfort to people whose children live far away and are concerned about mom and dad living alone,” Turpin adds.

More than give comfort, the program saves lives. “We’ve found people trapped in the tub or collapsed after falling down stairs,” says Turpin. And, once in a while, dead. In that case, “our aim is to find them right away,” she says. “It’s horrible if something happens and nobody finds out till days later.”

In his three years using Telephone Reassurance, Ardeeser’s slip-up was rare. But it was enough to set off the program’s emergency plan. The neighbor Ardeeser had supplied as his sole contact happened to be off in Arizona that week. That left the police.

In all the program’s 23 years, “We’ve only had to send the police out 14 times,” says volunteer coordinator Marie Bailey. “I think that speaks highly of the follow-through of our volunteers.” Police get called only after volunteers exhaust a client’s roster of family, friends and doctors. “Like the Mounties, we find our man,” says Bailey.

When a call doesn’t come through, it’s usually simple forgetfulness.

But sometimes not, as Turpin once saw herself.

“It was a classic case,” she says. “We tried neighbors, I called all the woman’s various doctors and asked if they were expecting her that day. She had no family.” Finally Turpin called the police, who forced the woman’s door to find her passed out on the floor since the night before. “I don’t remember what turned out to be wrong with her,” she says. “But after a week in a rehab center she was okay.”

You have to be an early bird to work for Telephone Reassurance. Volunteers start at 7:30am sharp.

“It’s hard to get volunteers because of that,” says volunteer Ruth Rogers, who’s been reporting Mondays to the Glen Burnie office for seven years. In a little over two hours, she makes as many as 170 calls and receives 20 more. For Rogers, a phone operator before direct dialing — in the days when the operator hooked up calls personally — close to 200 calls is no big deal.

Why would anyone crawl out of bed at dawn to make all those calls? “It’s like going to church,” says boss Bailey. “It makes you feel blessed.”

Occasionally there’s someone not so grateful, as volunteer Gordon Seasholtz discovered in a close-call emergency.

“I had one lady who’d pick the phone right up,” says Seasholtz, a 17-year veteran. “One morning she didn’t.” Unwilling to jump to conclusions, Seasholtz theorized the woman was showering and called later. “I called back four or five times,” he says. Finally he called the woman’s only contact, her daughter. “She chewed me out!” Seasholtz recalls. “She told me her mother had been just fine the night before — and that it was none of my business anyway.”

Seasholtz considered it entirely his business. He wasted no time on the final resort, calling 911. Paramedics rushed to the woman’s house to find her suffering a heart attack. “About an hour later, the medics called to tell me she’d make it,” says Seasholtz. “They thanked me, saying she probably would have died if I hadn’t acted.”

Telephone Reassurance covers all scenarios.

What if a fiend holds you captive and answers the phone in your stead?

“If someone else answers and says you’re not available, first we’ll make a note of it. If it continues, we’ll ask to speak to you ourselves,” says Turpin. “If my agreement is to speak to you, it’s you I want to speak to.”

Many volunteers are retirees and so are specially attuned to the elderly they serve. “Some clients are businesslike,” says Bailey. “They just want their phone check. But for others, you’re the only voice they hear. Volunteers tune in on that and are willing to talk. Lots of the volunteers form friendships with clients.”

Contrary to most volunteer programs, which tend to run short on staff and long on needy souls to serve, Telephone Reassurance, though free, has actually grown short of clients. Volunteer Seasholtz says the number has dwindled to about half what it was when he started 17 years ago, though there is in fact an ever-growing number of elderly or infirm who need their help. The problem, he says, is getting them to use the service.

“For some reason,” she says, “they shy away from it.”

Be safe, not shy: if you or a loved one needs Telephone Reassurance, call them at 410/222-4464.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly