Friendly Calls program changing lives during pandemic

A phone-based visiting program aimed at older adults in Saskatchewan is being hailed as life-changing thanks to the Canadian Red Cross. 

The CRC Friendly Calls program pairs a trained Red Cross volunteer with an adult over 55 years of age who is feeling isolated or lonely, who may have limited social or family connections, or who feels they could benefit from more social interaction. 

Participants in the program received one call a week at a regular scheduled time. Not only is it a time to have a social chat, but volunteers can also offer resources such as mental health help, community events or exercise programs. 

Manager of the CRC Friendly Calls program, Shawna Green, said the program started in 2016 as an in-person visiting program in Yorkton and surrounding areas. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2019, a hybrid model was introduced and the program quickly evolved to over the phone. 

“It helps [the participants] just having somebody to talk to, especially the ones in lockdown,” said Green. “Sometimes our participants don’t have any family or they may be estranged, or they may have family to talk to but don’t want to burden them. It’s just someone to talk to about their frustrations and what’s going on in the world.”

Currently, there are 101 actively paired participants that receive weekly phone calls through the program.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted people’s way of life, the Red Cross in Saskatchewan is determined to continue providing support to individuals in need through the Friendly Calls program. 

Referrals can be done through the Red Cross website or over the phone. They accept self referrals, referrals by a friend or family member, caregiver, or healthcare provider. 

“We have had healthcare staff who didn’t know this program was there, that wish they would have known about it years ago,” said Green. “When we have a resource for Saskatchewan residents that does not cost them anything to partake in and gives them someone to talk to, maybe help them find other resources, they should know about it.”

According to Statistics Canada, social isolation and exclusion are related to serious negative health effects and reduced quality of life for seniors. Friendly Calls is working to change this. 

“If you are feeling lonely and you are feeling a little bit isolated, The Red Cross can help you,” says Luc Mullinder, CRC Vice President, Saskatchewan.

Thanks to the Red Cross Friendly Calls program, individuals with limited social and family connections across the province are receiving unwavering support in their time of need. 

“We can talk about anything. I can let go. Relax a little bit and talk about something else. You see life in a different perspective when you get a call like I do,” recalled Chantal Bisson, a participant of the CRC Friendly Calls Program in Saskatchewan. “It’s very beneficial and for a little while you can forget your problems, your situation and listen to the other one. It’s a two-way communication and it’s a benefit to both of us.”

Since 2019, the program has grown exponentially. Friendly Calls volunteers have made over 7600 calls to older adults in over 30 communities across Saskatchewan. The program is free to join and the demand is high for volunteers. 

“I thought there is something that I can do to reach out to someone just to make their day a little bit better,” adds Gisele Yarbrough, a Friendly Calls Volunteer. “Quite frankly it has turned out to make my day better as well.”

For more information on being a Friendly Calls Volunteer or becoming a participant, please visit www.redcross.ca/skfriendlycalls or call 1-888-335-3345. Intake for participants can be done easily over the phone.

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