It took a year for Rolando Cervantes to get over the emotional effects of having suffered a two-week bout with chicken pox in Rome. His cure did not come entirely from medicine and recuperation.
Recovery, for Cervantes, came in initiating a program that relieves isolated people of the kind of anxiety and loneliness he experienced during the two weeks he was quarantined thousands of miles away from family and friends.
Cervantes says he feels restored now that he has started a program of daily telephone calls to people who are confined to their homes and in need of contact with someone who cares about them.
A 38-year-old airline flight attendant who lives in South Pasadena, Cervantes organized Telephone Reassurance, a program that started last month and operates Monday through Friday from the South Pasadena Senior Citizens Center.
Through the center, he obtained the names of seven elderly shut-in people and those of 10 volunteers who take turns telephoning them. The shut-ins are called every weekday, primarily to check on their well-being but also to offer friendliness and encouragement.
"At my age, you never know what can happen to you," said Amy Herbert, 90, who lives alone and welcomes the attention she gets from her callers. "I don't have a living relative. I'm at the end of a whole line. It's nice to have someone call me."
Leonor Escalante, director of the senior citizens center, said the recipients all are grateful for the regular attention they now get through the program. "We have one woman with terminal cancer, and she tells us how important it is to feel someone cares for her," Escalante said. "Another is blind, and two are suffering from Alzheimer's disease. They all say they are grateful to have someone to turn to."
It all started a year ago when Cervantes came down with chicken pox while on a stopover in Rome. Because chicken pox, which has severe symptoms for adults, is highly contagious, Cervantes was ordered quarantined in a hotel room for two weeks.
"My heart would start beating faster at 10 every morning, because that's when the flight came in from New York," he said. "I'd be waiting and hoping for a call, and just hearing someone's voice was the highlight of every day."
A friend of Cervantes arranged for his co-workers who flew in to Rome to make the daily calls, which gave Cervantes the idea of setting up predictable daily contact for others.
"I could see how valuable it was to the volunteer caller, too," he said. "When you realize how much someone needs just to hear your voice, that can cause you to value life more."
After checking with several churches and agencies, many of which have similar programs, Cervantes patterned his after one initiated a year ago by Betsy Knox, director of volunteers at the Pasadena Senior Center.
The Pasadena Telephone Reassurance program has five volunteers who take turns calling 25 shut-ins once a day, seven days a week. Knox also started a Friendly Visitor program, in which each volunteer regularly visits a shut-in at home.
"If I had to make a choice, I'd take Telephone Reassurance because it can help so many more people," Knox said. The callers check to see that the elderly person is all right and chat for a few minutes. If no one answers the call, emergency measures are taken to confirm that the shut-in is safe.
Knox said the main requirements for a volunteer are being a good listener, being non-judgmental and keeping conversations confidential.
"And getting facts is important--knowing what is normal and what is not normal, and what to expect of elderly people," she said.
The greatest danger for volunteers, Knox said, is in getting emotionally involved with people and their problems. "That's easy to do, and we've found that the volunteers who get too close with the people they call are the ones who quit. They burn out," Knox said.
Empathy was a big factor among South Pasadena volunteers when they met last week after their first three weeks of calling shut-ins.
The callers, all women, worried about an old woman's cat that had wandered off, a man's symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, and what to say when the shut-in asks for more time and attention. They agreed that the program was working well and that they were eager to expand it with more callers and shut-ins to be called.
Cervantes agreed. A native of Peru who brought his parents from that country to live with him, he also collects toys and clothes that he takes to three children's homes in Guatemala.
"We can't count on governments to take care of people. We have to do it ourselves," he said.