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‘How are you?’ A phone call in Gulfport lets seniors know someone cares

Volunteers reach out to shut-ins to make sure they’re okay and to offer companionship.
Lorraine Gray has been volunteering at the Gulfport Senior Center for five years.
Lorraine Gray has been volunteering at the Gulfport Senior Center for five years. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 25
Updated Mar. 25

She pulls up to the senior center just before 10 a.m., walks past people outside waiting for help with their taxes, others lining up for the food pantry. “Good morning!” she greets folks.

As she props her cane by the welcome desk, an elderly man approaches, admiring the cool weather. She nods, answers briefly, then sits in the office chair.

“Okay, 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 they’re okay.

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. Okay, 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?” Lorraine 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 okay — still alive. Others want to talk. Or listen. Have a conversation, a distraction.

To know someone cares.

A year of loneliness

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. Most live alone. Many can’t get out on their own.

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, Walt or his supervisor drive by the person’s home. If no one answers Walt’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. “You do what you have to do to make sure they’re okay,” Walt says. “Thank goodness, so far, everyone’s been fine.”

Other senior centers, churches and synagogues run similar phone programs, though some use robo-calls. “We know people need to talk to someone,” Walt says. “Not just answer a recorded question.”

Most volunteers in Gulfport never meet the people they’re checking on. But they learn about that man’s grandson, that widow’s husband, whose kids come to visit, how the old dog is doing.

Since the pandemic shuttered the senior center — keeping people from their card games, crafts and gym — the calls became even more important, Walt says. And in demand.

Over the summer, Lorraine’s list swelled to 46 people.

Some wanted — needed — to talk every day.

‘Do you have any stories?’

“Good morning, Sylvia! This is Lorraine calling. I’ll give you a call back later,” she says on this Monday.

As soon as she hangs up, the phone rings. “Good morning! Gulfport Senior … Oh, Sylvia! Hello! No, that’s all right. Are you okay today? It is a little chilly. How about that vaccine? Did you get that done? Oh, the second one, too? You must feel more comfortable then. … Oh, well, tell your friend to try Walgreens. Or Publix. They have them, too.”

Lorraine knows Sylvia and Agnes from the before-days, when they could hang out at the center. Everyone else on her list is just a voice on the other end of the line. But 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. Lorraine met her five years ago, helped her find a caregiver and saw her go in and out of the hospital and rehab. Lorraine has been one of the few constants in her life.

“I really appreciate the calls,” Agnes says. “It’s comforting to know someone thinks of you and takes the time to cheer you up.”

Lorraine raised her son and daughter in the woods of New Hampshire, where she was a home healthcare 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 likes to talk. Loves to listen. She asks about their breathing, pain and oxygen levels, knows when to recommend they call their doctor. “I never push,” she says. “But I can pick up on what they need and make suggestions.”

She knows that often, laughter is the best medicine. One 97-year-old woman always asks, “Do you have any stories?” So Lorraine 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.” And once, a bat flew through her house, and she and the kids spent an hour searching for it. Later, she found it in a pile of towels in the dryer. “That was one crispy critter.”

At 10:45, Lorraine checks her chart. One more call to make. Patrick doesn’t answer, so she leaves a message. Sometimes, he doesn’t feel well enough to pick up the phone.

But after a few minutes, Patrick calls back. He’s doing better, thank you. “Do you have a recliner? Or can you elevate the hospital bed?” Lorraine asks. “That’ll help with the breathing … You’re very welcome. It’s always good to talk to you. We’ll catch up tomorrow.”

Some mornings, Lorraine 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.

Lorraine Gray used to be a home healthcare nurse. Now, she uses those skills when she talks to elderly residents.
Lorraine Gray used to be a home healthcare nurse. Now, she uses those skills when she talks to elderly residents. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Gulfport residents 50 and older can sign up for the free Telephone Reassurance Program by calling 727-893-2237. Call the same number to volunteer or get information about starting a similar program in your community.

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Maria Carrillo at mcarrillo@tampabay.com or call (727) 892-2301.