At age 88, Jim McDonough has accumulated a lifetime of stories: farming with a team of horses on the family home place in Stearns County. Working a high school “town job” setting bowling pins to save up for a Model A Ford. Serving in Germany during the Korean War.
And then there’s Delores. McDonough met the 90-pound brunette next door when he moved to “the Cities” after his Army hitch. They were engaged within six months.
But his bride of 61 years died on Christmas Eve three years ago. His two adult children are disabled so he can’t visit them. The pandemic canceled his volunteer work and his church Bible study. He busies himself with woodworking and his backyard tomatoes, but admits he tires of his own company.
“I stay home since the virus,” he said. “I can’t complain because my health is good. But it’s a different life for me now.”
Now the landline in McDonough’s St. Paul home has become his lifeline. Several times a day, he picks up the phone to talk to a new friend, like Karmit Bulman, 62, a nonprofit executive from St. Paul.
“I tell him, ‘Jim, you’re my role model. You’re so capable, the way you take care of yourself and your home, drive, follow your hobbies,’ ” Bulman said. “He’s a stoic Minnesotan so he’s a little uncomfortable with a compliment, but it’s the truth. Jim is delightful.”
McDonough has been paired with phone pals through a new initiative by Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly.
The nonprofit had canceled its in-person programs. While that spared participants from being exposed to the virus, it put them at risk for loneliness. So leaders conceived the Elder Friends Phone Companions.
“We had older adults in our program who were feeling a little lost,” said Ann Fosco, director of outreach and programming. “We said, everyone has a phone. Let’s start there. And it’s taken off like wildfire.”
Little Brothers began recruiting volunteers who would commit to a background check and a short online training session and then begin making a minimum of two phone calls a week — to chat, listen and form a bond of friendship.
The program has already signed up 300 volunteers to contact participants ranging in age from 65 to 104. A few like to use Zoom or other platforms for a face-to-face digital connection, but most of them are content to pick up the phone.
Right now, the program has more volunteers than older participants. As a result, some of the participants are now connected to several volunteers.
Nadine Mercil, 61, a college-admissions officer from Minneapolis, is also matched with McDonough. She’s gone from making two calls a week to dialing him up every day.
“Some people in Jim’s situation might get angry or bitter. Not Jim. He’s kind, compassionate, honest. Never tries to hide how he feels,” she said. “It’s hard for him to be isolated but he’s not giving up. He hangs in there. We have changed each other’s lives for the better.”
McDonough looks forward to a day when he might be able to go to Perkins with them. In the meantime, he’s grateful to have the daily conversations.
“We keep tabs on one another and that’s good,” he said. “They keep me going.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.