“Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.' "
– singer/songwriter John Prine
Those living in senior-citizen homes are much lonelier than usual these days because the coronavirus outbreak has prevented visits from relatives and friends and, for the most part, confined them to their rooms or apartments.
The Flyers are trying to help.
Many who work for the Flyers -- including head coach Alain Vigneault -- and their parent company, Comcast Spectacor, are making weekly phone calls to those who live in a senior center, attempting to keep them connected to the world during these challenging times.
The program, called Flyers Phone-Linemates, started recently with those living at the Mildred Shor Inn at the Abramson Senior Care Center in North Wales, Montgomery County. The Mildred Shor section is for those who are a little higher functioning and get around fairly well, according to a staff member.
Forty people connected to the Flyers made calls to the seniors, who range from their 70s to more than 100 years old.
“To be honest, it was the best part of my week,” said Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, referring to her phone conversation with Harvey Ballen, 91. “He was so uplifting with the stories he was telling me; we were talking obviously about the crisis and it just reminded me that every generation has these difficult challenges. He talked about a lot of things he went through, like being in the Korean War, and he just gave me a lot of hope and inspiration, personally.”
Vigneault also was inspired by his call to a woman in her 90s who didn’t want to reveal her name for this story.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to use this time to help others and hopefully brighten their day," Vigneault said from Gatineau, Quebec, where he has settled after spending part of the suspended NHL season at his home in South Florida. “With everyone at risk and much of the public in self-quarantine, this has also affected senior citizens particularly hard – especially the ones in assisted-care homes."
Added Vigneault, who turns 59 in May: “Having such a strong relationship with my parents, I wanted to make this a priority once the opportunity came up."
Val Palmieri, chief operating officer at Abramson, said her facility “quickly embraced” the Flyers’ “linemates" idea.
“You can imagine at this time, we are doing everything we can to keep our residents as engaged as possible," she said. “They’re so separated from their families and it’s just a very difficult time, so we thought this was a great idea."
Palmieri said the average age of their 372 seniors on campus is 88 years old, and that not having visitors has been “very trying" on them.
The calls from those connected to Flyers Charities have been well-received.
“It’s something for them to look forward to," she said. “Certainly they get their family calls and we’ve been setting up Skype and FaceTime for the families, but what a thrill for them to get a call from someone they don’t know who’s calling to check in on them. Everyone knows the feeling of having a neighbor knock on your door unexpectedly to say, ‘How you doing?' That’s really what it is."
“So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn’t care.
Say ‘Hello in there, hello.' "
-- John Prine
Camillo said after the Wells Fargo Center closed its offices because of the coronavirus on March 12, employees “almost immediately were asking what they could do to help in the community. There was a strong desire to be of service.”
Initially, she said, “it was tough to figure out what that could be, given the government guidelines to stay home, so it was really challenging to figure out something that a large part of our workforce could do.”
Through Flyers Charities, $250,000 was donated to Philabundance, one of the area’s largest hunger-relief organizations, enabling 160,000 people to be fed. In addition, food deliveries were made to frontline workers in health care, waste management, and grocery stores.
“We’ve been delivering Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola, two of our corporate partners, who have helped us do that," said Camillo, whose company will hold a blood drive at the Wells Fargo Center on May 4.
Flyers Charities, Camillo added, came up with another idea.
“We started to brainstorm on which groups were most impacted by the COVID-19 situation," Camillo said. “We thought about those living in senior centers. They’re at added risk and we had been hearing stories about how the residents were quarantined to their rooms, and our hearts are really focused on our older neighbors."
Earlier this month, they began their phone chats with seniors at Abramson.
“It’s one of the prominent senior care centers in the Philadelphia area,” Camillo said. “We have a long history with them, supporting fundraising initiatives, and being involved with their gala in the past.”
Down the road, Camillo said, she and her group hope to expand and have the Flyers Phone-Linemates also call other senior centers in the area.
“Hopefully we can keep it going beyond the COVID [pandemic],” Camillo said. “It just started, but we’re establishing relationships. I think it’s going to be a program our employees really enjoy, the residents enjoy, and it establishes a longer-term, deeper partnership than we ever had at Abramson.”
The idea, she said, is to “combat loneliness” which is at its peak during the pandemic.
“We brought it up to Abramson, and it’s like a virtual pen-pal program where we’re partnered with a resident who is quarantined to their room and we schedule calls," Camillo said. “We got paired with every single resident who wanted to participate in the [Mildred Shor] annex and from what I understand, the participation rate was close to 100 percent. That tells you how much we’re filling a need and how much people are looking for new conversation and interaction with people in the world."
The Flyers Phone-Linemates make their calls from their homes.
“My linemate was great. It was real easy conversation," Camillo said of her chat with Ballen, who used to co-own a group of area sandwich shops called Longfellows. “He was incredibly engaging, incredibly interesting. He knew sports well, and he told me all about his life, his family, and his career and his interests, and he was really easy to talk to. I was worried about how the conversation was going to flow, but it was a piece of cake, and he was really happy to have someone to talk to and have someone to break up his day."
Her first call was by phone, while her second was made Thursday on Zoom, enabling her and her same “linemate" to see each other for the first time.
“He told me that since this all happened, he’s learned how to use Zoom, and he’s been using more streaming services, too," said Camillo, adding she learned Ballen took his daughter to the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup parade, in 1974. “ … I was so inspired. Here’s someone in his 90s who is learning new things, so our second call was on Zoom. We’re building a relationship."
The coronavirus has changed the regulations, keeping residents in their rooms for their own protection. For the time being, there are no group games or activities. The residents even have meals brought to their rooms. There have been some coronavirus-related deaths on the Abramson campus, but none in the Mildred Shor Inn annex, an official said last week.
“Before, there were many programs presented to us," said Ballen, a widower who was born and raised in Philadelphia. “They would bring in volunteers and professional people for discussions and entertainment, and live music. All of that has been stopped completely and we are entertaining ourselves in our own rooms by way of television or reading or, in my case, I’ve been on my computer and I like to stream television. I’ve watched Tiger King -- it was very unusual -- and Fauda and some other shows."
Ballen’s wife of 62 years, Rhoda, died in December, after which he moved into Abramson. He gets calls from his three children but said he appreciated hearing from Camillo.
“We really enjoyed each others’ company," he said.
He talked about working on an Amish farm when he was a youngster, talked about his days as a student at Franklin & Marshall College and in the Army, talked about the Phillies, Flyers, and Eagles.
“We found out about each others’ experiences," Ballen said. “She told me about her job with the Flyers and that she used to work for the Washington baseball team."
After speaking with Ballen, Camillo was on a call with her employees and told them they had a chance to participate in the program and “brighten somebody’s day. Sometimes small things are just as important as the big things."
Vigneault said he was mostly a listener in his conversation.
“I did find out she was around 12 when World War II began," he said. “It was fascinating to hear all the events in her life and all the stories she had. She was over 90 and she was a very sharp lady. We had a good chat. She did most of the talking and I had a great time listening."
Camillo said she was “delighted" Vigneault signed up to participate.