Phone Buddies Bridge Age Gap and Social Isolation for Visually Impaired People

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Phone buddies cross generations and create successes at Independence for the Blind of West Florida.

The panhandle of Florida is a strip of land bordering Alabama and Georgia stretching 200 miles between its largest city, Pensacola, and the Apalachicola River.  It is mostly about 50 miles between the Florida border and the Gulf of Mexico, and sparsely populated.  Florida’s capital, Tallahasee, is three hours through piney woods, to the East.  Known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a big part of this region also was severely devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018.  Amazing beauty and hardship have gone hand-in-hand for families here, for two centuries.

The ten counties in this region are served by Independence for the Blind, generally known as IBWest.  Covering such a huge area, with hours of travel between clients, has always been a formidable challenge.  However, the new reality posed by the Covid-19 pandemic has opened up new ventures for serving people who are blind or visually impaired.  Despite the relative low incomes of most people, about 80% of families use computers, so remote learning is shrinking the distances in many ways.

Nonetheless, Covid and isolation go hand in hand.  John O’Dillon, Director of Vocational Rehabilitation for IBwest, was very concerned about both ends of the age spectrum:  seniors living alone or in assisted living, and teens thinking about their future as adults.  Who was keeping visually impaired seniors engaged, included, and active?  How would teens learn about work habits, interviewing, and all the “soft skills” that make for success in the adult world?

Close-up of hand holding iPhone. Hand is of a person of color.

Ready to make that call!

The connection clicked in John’s mind one bright morning.  The “Phone Buddy” project was born.  Shy visually impaired teens are being coached on conversation skills in preparation for reaching out to people living with vision loss who are 60+ years older than them.  Older blind individuals who are often on the sidelines of social activities in their assisted living residences or even in their own rural homes are picking up the phones and sharing their lives and their wisdom with the teens.

One shy 16 year-old got off her first phone call and reported breathlessly, “I was sweating bullets!  Totally out of my comfort zone!”  Now, she can’t wait to call back.  Both generations are benefiting, and who can say which one is getting more out of the connection?

Older woman seated by her lace-curtained window, speaking on the phone with a sweet little smile on her face.

The simple pleasure of hearing a friendly voice.

For sure, the teens are learning to talk.  No texting, no screens.  The conversational skills will work when interviewing for a job, working in a care-giving role or any kind of customer service, and of course in higher education of any kind.  The older generation is feeling the joy of sharing, mentoring, or just enjoying fresh, young voices.

The “phone buddies” bridge miles, generations, and lifestyles.  Having a friendly voice in your life inspires hope.  A sense of purpose brings meaning at any age.  Once again, intergenerational bonds are working their transformative magic!