Carol Allison, 85, of Madras, with her 20-year-old parrot, ‘Missy.’

Carol Allison looks forward to her weekly calls from a friend she’s never met.

The 85-year-old writer and illustrator in Madras has talked regularly over the phone for the past three months with Kelli Bradley, a volunteer with Caring Connections, a program that connects volunteers with seniors experiencing isolation through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I just thought it would be fun to do that and meet somebody new and talk,” Allison said. “Since I live by myself.”

Allison, who moved from Portland to Madras in 1956, has lived alone since her husband died of cancer in the mid-1960s. But she is not as lonely as other seniors. She has three sons, including one in Madras, and nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Still, Allison lights up when she talks with Bradley, a Sunriver resident who works in consulting and owned an in-home care company for several years. The two talk for hours about cooking, computer problems and how much central Oregon has changed since Allison arrived.

They both feel grateful they were matched through the program.

“It helps people and it brings people together,” Allison said. “I think it would be great for elderly people who can’t get out or don’t have anything at home to keep them busy.”

Denise LaBuda, director of communications for the Council on Aging of Central Oregon, said the council started the Caring Connections program last fall. The organization started to notice seniors were more isolated than usual due to the pandemic. More than 50 seniors across the region signed up for the program.

“It was pretty clear people were growing less connected,” LaBuda said.

For many of the seniors, the phone call from a volunteer is the only social interaction they get each week, LaBuda said. The phone calls are also a way to check on a senior and make sure they are staying healthy, she said.

Social isolation was an issue for seniors even before the pandemic, LaBuda said. National studies identified loneliness in seniors as a growing epidemic with higher health risks than obesity or smoking. An AARP study found one-third of seniors nationwide reported feeling a lack of companionship. LaBuda believes the same is true locally.

“It’s not that this was new,” LaBuda said. “COVID just made it all worse.”

The group hopes to grow the Caring Connections program beyond the pandemic.

The program recently received a $137,837 grant from the Central Oregon Health Council. And the program is also using a software system to collect statistics on the number, frequency and duration of phone calls. The information will then be analyzed by the Oregon Health & Science University Community Research Hub to understand the effect of the weekly calls.

LaBuda said the program may soon expand to in-person visits as well.

“We already have volunteers who would like to go see the people,” LaBuda said. “They would like to meet them when it gets safe and build a friendship in person.”

Bradley signed up for the program three months ago and was matched with Allison. Bradley has experience caring for seniors through her business, The Devoted Daughter, which offers resources for professional caregivers and those caregiving for a family member.

“This is kind of in my wheelhouse,” Bradley said. “I saw the ad and thought I can do this. It’s not a big deal. I called and said I’d love to help if I can.”

Every time Allison answers the phone, Bradley can tell she is smiling.

“She is very positive. She’s always happy,” Bradley said. “She has lots of interesting stories. Although we come from different backgrounds, we always find things to chit chat about. I think it’s good for both of us.”

The weekly phone calls often turn into productive conversations. A couple weeks ago, Allison was writing a story for her grandson and needed help giving the characters names. Bradley helped Allison come up with ideas.

“It’s just good to be able to help her, and I enjoy it,” Bradley said.

After three months, Bradley feels like she knows Allison on a personal level. She would be able to tell if something was wrong with Allison. The weekly calls offer comfort for them both.

“We spend hours on the phone,” Bradley said. “I would be worried if she was down in the dumps. That’s not her.”

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