Providing telephone reassurance for senior community members


The Portage County RSVP program in central Wisconsin has operated a telephone reassurance program for many years, which assists the growing number of frail and poor seniors who live alone. RSVP volunteers call seniors each weekday to check on their well-being, referring any concerns to appropriate family members, RSVP staff, or other agencies. Early intervention strategies like this can delay or sometimes even prevent nursing home placement, which is more costly than community-based services.


Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services census data indicated that people age 85 and over are the fastest growing segment of the population — it increased 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, and continued growth is expected. The 2000 U.S. Census estimated that 971 people over age 85 lived in Portage County, with about 17 percent living below the poverty line and 41 percent living alone. According to Department on Aging staff, many in this group are frail and need assistance to live safely at home; they are also most at risk of entering a nursing home where care is more costly.


Program Overview

Volunteers call program participants each weekday to check on their well-being and to report any concerns to RSVP staff, who then make referrals to family or other staff or agencies. To remove any barriers to participation, the service is offered at no charge to all seniors in the county.

The Portage County RSVP is able to locate seniors in their community with the assistance of their sponsoring agency, the local Department on Aging. It is recommended that other programs seeking to replicate this practice contact the information and assistance staff of their respective Departments on Aging, social workers with Health and Human Services, or hospital discharge planners to obtain contact information about seniors in their communities.

The program has expanded to offer assistance to non-senior adults with disabilities, who also benefit from telephone reassurance services.

To be part of the program, participants complete a simple registration form that includes contact information helpful to staff in case a problem arises and follow-up becomes necessary.

RSVP policy is to complete background checks when working with vulnerable populations, so Portage County RSVP does a state and local background check on all prospective volunteers. The RSVP assistant meets with new volunteers to review program policies and stress confidentiality. New volunteers sit in with an experienced volunteer once or twice until they are comfortable calling alone.

RSVP pays for the phone calls when made from the Lincoln Center office; however, about half of the volunteers make the calls from home and they are not automatically reimbursed. RSVP would be more than happy to offer assistance with the cost of calls if that is an issue for volunteers.

Daily Procedures

  1. Calls are made from a desk in the volunteer office at Lincoln Center or from the volunteer's home. Volunteers calling from Lincoln Center check a clipboard for any messages regarding participants. Volunteers calling from home call RSVP first to see if there are any changes before beginning their calls.
  2. Calls are made between 8:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.
  3. If a participant indicates he/she will be gone the next day, a volunteer writes a note, signs and dates it, and attaches it to the clipboard. If calling from home, volunteers call RSVP staff and someone on staff writes a note for the volunteers who will be making the next day's calls.
  4. Volunteers are instructed to use a warm, friendly voice and to identify themselves as soon as possible when making the call. Volunteers should spend as much time conversing as feels comfortable or appropriate. For many participants, this conversation may be the only one they have all day.
  5. If a participant shares a problem or mentions a medical concern, volunteers give that information to RSVP staff and the project director or a staff member follows up. Referrals may also be made for assistance with meals, chore services, transportation, grocery delivery, or case management.
  6. If there is no answer, volunteers should double-check the clipboard for a message. If there is no message, then volunteers continue trying to reach the senior or person with disabilities while completing other calls. If after completing all calls the participant hasn't been reached, the RSVP staff and/or project director follows up.
  7. Volunteers record the date and hours on their time sheets. If calling from home, RSVP staff records the volunteer's hours.

The TeleCare information packet provided by Nan Hart, Executive Director, RSVP, The Volunteer Center, Green Mountain FGP includes additional resources, such as sample checklists and forms; a job description and confidentiality agreement; and client and caller instruction sheets, office procedures, and volunteer guide.


During the year 2001, 20 volunteers with Portage County RSVP in Wisconsin provided 300 hours of telecare service. Twenty-seven program participants who lived alone and had an average age of 85 received a daily telephone call to check on their well-being. A total of 5000 calls were made during the year. In addition to the well-being check, volunteers also provided positive socialization to a frail population that often has little contact with the community.

As a result of this activity, at some time during the year, 50 percent of program participants benefited from assistance provided by early intervention. This assistance included referrals for meals, chore service, transportation, grocery shopping, medical care, or case management. Seven participants were referred for non-emergency medical intervention.

For more information:

Website: Portage County Department on Aging: RSVP

Related Resources: 

Senior Corps, RSVP


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