Page One

Homebound Rely on Tele-Care Calls for Contact

Friday July 09, 2004

Sometimes all it takes is a phone call.  

That’s the premise a group of Berkeley-based volunteers works from as part of an organization called Tele-Care, which places daily calls to people living in convalescent homes, the homebound, and those living in isolation. 

Operating in three counties, Alameda, San Francisco, and Contra Costa, the program is housed at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Herrick campus in Berkeley. 

A five-day-a-week operation, the program is set up to check in on people but has also developed into a social scene of sorts. Many call recipients, say organizers, wait for the phone calls because they sometimes represent the client’s only contact with the outside world. Others have developed lasting relationships with the volunteer callers. 

“[The calls] keep the wind to my back so I can walk up the hill, the hills of mistrials, the hills of loneliness,” said Freddy (program directors would not release last names). Freddy, who has been on her own since 1978 and is now 83, said she relies on Tele-Care as part of her daily routine, that “God willing,” has allowed her to stay positive and healthy. “Tele-Care is very close to my heart, they are very warm people,” she said. “If only I could speak like Martin Luther King, Jr., I would tell them how much I appreciate them.” 

According to Sabra Learned, the program director, Tele-Care was launched in 1970 when a group of nurses from the Herrick campus started calling their discharged patients to check in. Even though the patients were well enough to go home, Learned said the nurses knew they still needed care while transitioning back to their lives and often times one call a day was enough to get them through. 

“We really try to acknowledge them as people and viable members of the community,” Learned said. “Socially these people feel cared for and connected.”  

Since then, however, the program has grown exponentially and includes an extensive group of volunteers, several of whom have been with the program for 20 plus years, and at least a couple who have been there since the beginning. The program is funded through grants, direct donations as well as matching funds from Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, which provides them free office space and covers their phone bill. 

In addition to social care, the program provides preventative health care. Besides calling to say hello, volunteers check in and see how the clients are feeling and are often able to intervene if medical attention is needed. 

One client, said Learned, once was unable to pick up the phone but instead knocked it off the ringer, tipping callers off that something was wrong. Tele-Care called 911, and an ambulance rushed the woman to the hospital just in time to save her life. 

Program volunteers also correspond with clients, always making sure to send cards on birthdays and holidays. 

“Each day I look forward to the different person who calls me,” said Reva, 82. Instead of just one caller to one client, each client is assigned to several different callers, depending on how many days a week the clients request to be called. “I’d be lost without it,” Reva added. 

Reva said that even though she lives in a senior housing facility of over 250 people, she’s only made two close friends since moving there, and relies on Tele-Care for a large chunk of her social interaction. The added benefit, she said, is that she’s developed lasting relationships with several of the callers. 

“I’m very particular about the company I keep and you don’t make friends fast as an old person,” said Reva. “But these people who call me, they are truly concerned about me in a deeper way. I feel someone truly cares about my social welfare.” 


Tele-Care is always expanding, according to Sabra Learned, and the program is currently looking for clients. The service is free, and all people need to do to get involved is call the program office at 204-4487. Volunteers are at phones from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Monday-Friday but callers can leave a message at any time.