Most people have been stuck at home since mid-March, cut off from normal human contact. It’s been a shocking a taste of what constitutes regular life for the housebound.

“A lot of our elderly or disabled people, this is how they live most of the time, and it can be a lonely road,” Jackie Wahl said.

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud, it is this: It offers a unique opportunity to break down chronic isolation. Wahl’s job is to organize that effort, as the Home Safety Program Coordinator at Interlink Inc., a nonprofit volunteer service in Clarkston. She is recruiting clientèle and callers for the Are You OK (RUOK) program, which aims to establish regular phone contact to check on and build relationships with those who can’t leave their homes.

Interlink Inc. was able to secure funding for a new program for the duration of the pandemic. But Wahl says it will outlast the coronavirus (information on how to donate can be found above).

Ideally, volunteers will check in with shut-ins each day, though the frequency and duration of calls will be dictated by the preference and comfort level of each client. “Some of the people (volunteers) talk to will have much shorter conversations, and some will have longer conversations,” Wahl said.

The program goal is to build connections and a safety net for the most vulnerable and unseen members of society.

“Our suicide rate here in the (Lewiston-Clarkston) Valley is tremendously high per capita, and a good number of those people are in the elderly category,” Wahl said. “When people think about the needs of the elderly — especially at this time that we’re not supposed to go out and mix and mingle — they think of the physical needs ... and not the mental and emotional side of things.”

Interlink’s focus is helping valley residents 60 and older and the disabled who can’t drive, and its other programs already address physical needs. Staff screen volunteers, line up personal shoppers (see the related story on Pages 8-10) and transportation to appointments and stores; and organize work parties to install ramps, grab bars and safety railings that enable clients to stay safely in their own homes as long as possible. But RUOK takes that work a vital step further.

So far the project has been well-received by clients.

“They love it, they’re happy about it,” Wahl said. “There are those who do have people checking on them ... but there are so many that don’t.”

Volunteers also are signing up as word of the need gets around. One, who is homebound herself, jumped at the chance, and she encourages other shut-ins to do the same.

Clarkston caller Pat Pasch is 77, but “physically I’m substantially older than that,” she said. She has struggled with bad lungs for decades, and her doctors told her pointblank that if she contracts COVID-19 she’s a goner.

“I’m very high risk, and I’ve been home for three months,” she said. “And I haven’t had any family in my house for two months.”

She does have a large team of family and friends in the area who check in on her regularly, and she wants to pay that forward.

“So I’ve been trying desperately to do something to help others,” she said. When she learned of the need for volunteer callers on a KLEW television news segment, she called Wahl to sign up. Pasch was paired with a lady who requested a weekly check-in call.

“Even if you think you can’t do anything, there are little things you can do,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that people who can’t get out can do.”

Pasch has gotten through the tedium and loneliness of this period by mailing out notes of encouragement, baking treats for pick-up and now making calls.

“It’s also good for me. I need to hear a human voice.” she said. “I was looking for something that involved me with other people a little bit.”

RUOK volunteers undergo background checks and volunteer training, which includes a discussion about the importance of balancing commiseration with encouragement.

“To know that you’re suffering the same as other people and that you can encourage each other,” are basic human needs, Wahl said. “And I hope that the encouragement part is the bigger part of the conversation.

“Everyone wants to talk about what’s going on (with the isolation) .. but we need that message of hope.”

She sets up client and volunteers with compatible interests and schedules — morning people with morning people, late-risers with night owls, and so forth. “So it’s sort of a matching game,” Wahl said. If it’s not a good fit, she’ll try again.

“I always say, ‘People who are drawn to (this volunteer opportunity) will be good at it’ ... and nobody is ever locked in.”

Wahl is excited to see how connections seeded by RUOK program may develop. She believes it has potential to strengthen community, grow Interlink’s clientèle and help staff to better understand clients’ needs — which they often are reluctant to share.

Many homebound people hesitate to reach out, believing resources should go toward helping those with a perceived “greater” need, Wahl said.

“It’s not a matter of someone else needing it worse. We want to serve everyone.”

She encourages anyone who is homebound or those who know of someone who might benefit from Interlink services to call the office.

“Word (of RUOK) is getting around,” she said. “I expect it to grow pretty exponentially.”

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