GULFPORT, Fla. >> She pulls up to the senior center just before 10 a.m., walks past people outside waiting for help with their taxes, and others lining up for the food pantry. “Good morning!” she greets folks.
As she props her cane by the welcome desk, a man approaches, admiring the cool weather. She nods, answers briefly, then sits in the office chair.
“OK, Jay,” she says kindly. “I’ll talk to you later. I’ve got to start making my calls.”
Lorraine Gray, 77, puts on silver-rimmed glasses and pulls out a chart. After five years of volunteering at the Gulfport Senior Center, she knows most of the names and numbers. But she has to fill out a log, to record that all on the list are OK.
It’s Monday, so she has six people on her list. She already called eight from home.
“Hey,” she says brightly, cradling a landline against her shoulder. “This is Lorraine, just checking on you. Call me later. OK, bye!”
When the seniors don’t pick up, she tries not to worry. She marks the form to call back. This first man, she knows, has a caregiver staying with him right now. If she doesn’t hear from him after four or five tries, she’ll call his emergency contact.
“Good morning, Greta! How are you today?” Gray says to the next person, who picks up right away. “I’m fine! Did you have a good weekend? Quiet? That’s good. … And what’s your kitty been up to? Did he do anything fun?”
Some people she calls four mornings a week. Some just one. Some reassure her that they’re OK — still alive. Others want to talk. Or listen. Have a conversation, a distraction.
To know someone cares.
Checking in is key in a time of isolation
The Gulfport Senior Center started its Telephone Reassurance Program more than 20 years ago. Anyone older than 50 who lives in the small town on Boca Ciega Bay can request the free service.
Walt Pauly, who helps run the senior center, says eight volunteers talk to about 85 seniors every week.
Sometimes that call is the only time the person talks to someone all day.
Sometimes it’s the only way anyone knows something is wrong.
When volunteers can’t reach the emergency contact, Pauly or his supervisor drives by the person’s home. If no one answers Pauly’s knock, he calls the local police to do a wellness check.
They found one woman on the floor, another out driving — at 100 years old.
Other senior centers, churches and synagogues run similar phone programs, though some use robocalls. “We know people need to talk to someone,” Pauly says, “not just answer a recorded question.”
Since the pandemic shuttered the senior center — keeping people from their card games, crafts and gym — the calls became even more important, Pauly says. And in demand.
Over the summer Gray’s list swelled to 46 people.
‘Do you have any stories?’
“Good morning, Sylvia! This is Lorraine calling. I’ll give you a call back later,” she says.
As soon as she hangs up, the phone rings. “Good morning! Gulfport Senior … Oh, Sylvia! Hello! No, that’s all right. Are you OK today? It is a little chilly.”
Gray knows Sylvia and Agnes from the before-days, when they could hang out at the center. She considers them friends.
“Good morning, Agnes! It’s Lorraine. How are you today? Pretty good? Oh, that’s good. What did you do all weekend? Nothing? You didn’t do anything? No parties or anything?”
Agnes Roney, 87, lives alone. Her family is in Pennsylvania. Gray met her five years ago, helped her find a caregiver and saw her go in and out of the hospital and rehab. Gray has been one of the few constants in her life.
“I really appreciate the calls,” Roney says. “It’s comforting to know someone thinks of you and takes the time to cheer you up.”
Gray raised her son and daughter in the woods of New Hampshire, where she was a home health care nurse. She retired to Florida in 2009 and lives in a condo with her cat, Sassy. She was looking for something to fill her time, a way to meet people.
She knows that laughter is often the best medicine. One 97-year-old woman always asks, “Do you have any stories?” So Gray shares pieces of her past.
Like that time she came home to a goat camped out on her doorstep. When she tried to shoo it away, it charged her — so she had to call the constable. Who, it just happened, owned that angry goat. Or that time a snake slithered from under her refrigerator, so she got a hoe and chopped it in two. “Destroyed that snake and the linoleum.”
Some mornings, Gray isn’t in the mood to chat. But she shoves all that aside, she says. “This is so important to them. I always try to be upbeat, bring enthusiasm. If I can make someone’s day better, why wouldn’t I?”
Besides, she says, she gets as much out of these calls as they do.