Wait a Minute, Monsieur Postman

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“These phone lines are very helpful. I really do appreciate them,” one man told me recently as I was volunteering at the Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line — a national warmline and hotline for people 60 and older. “But what I really want, what I really need, is someone to come to my house to talk to me for an hour or so — to really get to know me. ”

“Sam” is 86, mostly housebound due to physical limitations, has been diagnosed with severe depression, and is living in a sprawling suburban community where connecting with people largely depends on driving to be with them. He says the few friends he had who lived in the area have died, and though his only daughter lives nearby, they’ve been estranged for years. He is gregarious, but now left alone with his own need for words and human contact. While Sam’s story is sad, it’s also sadly common.

As isolated seniors and concerned caregivers grapple with what has been called the Epidemic of Loneliness among older people, some solutions have been offered in the last few years.

  • Friendly visitor services offered by some churches and community centers; leads to these often available through local Area Agencies on Aging;
  • Community programs focused on warding off isolation and keeping seniors engaged, and
  • Intergenerational approaches, such as Mon Ami, which pairs seniors with college student visitors.

The French Connection

Leave it to the French, who elevated the humble egg to the lauded omelet, to come up with one beautiful solution. A program recently launched there, Veiller Sur Mes Parents, translated as “Watch Over My Parents,” pairs lonely and isolated seniors with the people already working to bring them news and connections: their postal workers. The idea first dawned a couple years back when a prolonged heatwave plagued parts of the country, prompting city halls to ask postal workers to check in on elderly residents while out on their routes. And now that idea has taken hold, with more than 6,000 older French residents subscribed to La Poste’s service; their average age is 82, the oldest is 98 — many of them living in rural areas.

As its name implies, the service’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on older residents who may be isolated or living alone, and report back to relatives who are concerned about their well-being, but may live at a distance. It works with a combination of old-fashioned human connection: a visit from the postal worker who’s already a familiar face, and the newer-fashioned technology of apps, texts, and email messages. Notably, it’s that technology that is to blame or applaud for lightening the load of paper mail now delivered, freeing the carriers some for this more personalized task.

While making their daily rounds, consigned postal workers who are given special training are authorized to chat with the seniors signed up for the service for five to ten minutes, though that sometimes stretches on a bit longer. Each is provided with a list of questions to ask, ranging from chitchat to deeper concerns, including:

  • What did you watch on TV last night?
  • Are you well?
  • Do you need any help with shopping?
  • Do you need a doctor?

The senior then reviews the answers to make sure they’re accurate, and the replies are sent off by text or email to the relative via an app, as well as to other people approved as contacts. Veiller Sur Mes Parents requires that at least one of the contacts must live locally and agree to intervene if needed. The cost of the service ranges from 19.90 euros (about $22.50) monthly for one visit per week to 139.90 euros ($158.75) per month for six weekly visits. It includes a wearable alarm that can send alerts to a call center in an emergency, as well as access to a phalanx of approved workers such as plumbers and electricians who can be dispatched if needed.

Like most innovations that shake up the status quo, the service received some flack when it was launched in 2017, mostly from trade unionists who groused that people should not have to pay for the simple civil act of looking in on an elderly member of the community.

The Postman as Key

But the naysayers may be outshouted by at least some satisfied participants. Nicolas Dezeure, a postal worker for nearly 17 years, now also delivers small talk and sympathy to Janine, age 81, who lives on his rural route in southern France, as do his own elderly grandparents. He sends reports of Janine’s well-being to her two daughters, who live nearly 400 miles away in the Paris area. The two have far surpassed the prescribed script of questions to ask and answer.

“She knows loads about me. We talk about my days playing rugby, my aching shoulders and knees,” Dezeure said in a recent interview in the Guardian. “The postman is a key figure. We’re always there at the same time of day. People virtually set their watches by us, saying: ‘Ah, that’s the postman. It must be time for lunch.’”

For her part, Janine appreciates much more than the predictable punctuality. “I want to stay living at home and I appreciate my adult children want to know I’m OK,” she says. “It’s pleasant to see the postman for a regular chat, and what choice do I have? It’s this or leave my home.”

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