Meet The Helpers: Sarah Bentley created a support line for seniors to call any time

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If you’re an older adult, living alone, you can imagine the stress that comes with the coronavirus pandemic, knowing you’re at higher risk knowing you’re isolated, and the toll that takes day after day.

That’s why Sarah Bentley started the Silver Line.

It’s a toll-free phone line that seniors can call for emotional and spiritual support—and a connection to practical support as well.

The Salvation Army mailed a card with an invitation to call to the 3,000 seniors in the western U.S. who live in one of The Salvation Army’s Silvercrest senior residences. And the phone has been ringing ever since.

Sarah is The Salvation Army’s Director of Officer Resources and Leadership Development—and is currently focused on assisting in the Silvercrest operation and ministry. 

It’s important, she said, that these older adults know they’re not alone.

She recently appeared on the Do Gooders Podcast to share how she’s helping in the midst of COVID-19 and what she is seeing from the frontlines of service.

Christin Thieme: Can you tell us more about your work right now and what it’s like serving with The Salvation Army in these strange days that we find ourselves in?

Sarah Bentley: Well, we went from trucking along normally to an abrupt change, didn’t we? And we in the Salvation Army, I think, have been really amazing at adapting to this new normal. So, I jumped in with the Silvercrest ministry and the residences that we have across the Western Territory. We have 37 communities that house low income older adults. Yes, 3000 residents in the Western Territory.

I started working alongside Susan Lawrence, who is the Executive Director for Silvercrest. She asked me if I would connect with the managers just in Cal South because, obviously right now, we can’t reach out to every single person, but to start with Cal South. So, I called each of the managers and asked them, “How can we help you as we have just started into this very strange time?” Each of those managers asked for specific items for their residents.

For instance, as you may remember, toilet roll was an issue a few weeks ago and there was an enormous need for that and canned goods, shelf stable food for the residents because they couldn’t leave their apartments. We started compiling all this, all the supplies and commodities here at the training school with the help of Cal South. We started taking all these items to each of the different Silvercrests in the Cal South area.

As this was going on, I thought to myself about all of these older adults who are stuck in their apartments. There’s no one that they can see or talk to or connect with. While some of them certainly do have families and friends that they can reach out to, there are many that don’t have that opportunity. So, I ran this idea up the flagpole, if you will, and I asked what would anybody think if we started an 800 number for the Silvercrest residents to call, and call it Silver Line. So, we got that established through our IT department here at THQ and we got the ball rolling. 

I absolutely love that you called it the Silver Line. It’s perfect. So it’s a toll free line that the 3,000 residents of these Silvercrest senior residences all across the western U.S. can call any time? And you sent out a card letting each of them know directly by mail? Tell us more about the line and how it’s going.

So yeah, we designed a card and got this card out. We had volunteers stuffing 3000 cards, labeling those cards and getting them out to every single resident across the Western Territory of the Silvercrest. Also, in conjunction with that, there was another opportunity for residents to fill out a form by calling it a Calling Cares Form. They could fill that out and send that back to us. That added another area where we would receive residents numbers and we could actually call them as well.

So, we’ve got these two areas where we can connect with the residents. Since the line has gone live, we’ve had many, many calls from residents across the territory and they’ve been heartwarming and they’ve been heartbreaking. During this time, the cadets also stepped up and helped me to call some of the residents back. It’s been a real ministry for them, as well, to get involved with talking to many of our residents.

So when people call, what are they looking for? What’s been the general response? Are they looking for help? Are they looking for someone to talk to?

Well, both. Some of them have called and asked if they could have food delivered to their apartment. They’ve called saying that they have a health problem, and is there someone we know that they can connect with? They’ve called for a chat. Here’s an illustration. I had a lovely lady call me yesterday from Santa Rosa. She left a message on the line and I didn’t call her back, probably for a couple of hours, because there’s all these other things happening. But I did try and make it a priority to get back to her because she sounded very anxious on her message. When I reached her, she was very, very, very depressed and sounded extremely anxious and she was crying. She said to me, “I feel I’m just overwhelmed. I’ve got so many things going on and I’ve got health issues, I’m not sleeping, I’m anxious.” She’s asking me the question, “Where is God in all of this?” She said, “I felt isolated.” I mean, she just went on and on and on and I obviously just let her speak.

Then, I asked her a couple of questions and I said to her, “What have you done today?” She proceeded to tell me, “Well, I made an effort to get up and go for a walk today.” So I said, “That’s great you got out.” She said, “Yeah, and the sun was shining.” She said, “I saw a couple of people, I couldn’t speak to them but I saw people.” She said, “That was such, it was such a blessing to be able to get outside and take a walk.” She really appreciated being able to do that.

So, she asked me if I would pray with her, of course I did. I said to her, her name is Pam, I said, “Pam, call me any time and I’ll stay connected with you.” That’s been the gist of how things have been going with the line. People just want connection. They want a human, to hear a human voice.

 Right. Especially people living by themselves, it has to be so hard.

Exactly. It’s just, you know what Christin, we’ve heard some really wonderful messages from some of our callers and calling them back. But also, honestly, I seriously have cried a couple of times because I think to myself, “What else can we do to help these older adults.”

The Silvercrest manager that we have in this territory and the service coordinators are unbelievably exceptional. They are so caring and loving and do everything they possibly can to help all of their residents. I’ve been in contact with them as well trying to make sure that everybody that’s made a request is being helped.

That’s fantastic. How do you personally handle all of the emotional stress load of this entire situation?

Well, personally I have to say that initially I was really down and depressed, and it was shocking to my system. Unfortunately, at the beginning of this, well probably two weeks into this, I had a death in my family in England.

I’m so sorry.

Yeah, it was agonizing and heartbreaking to say the least. The person, the family member, no one could be with that person in the hospital and the ramifications of that are just, quite frankly, devastating. We were all still trying to come to terms with the awfulness of it.

But then, I had a visit from Jesus. We had a come to Jesus meeting, him and I. I’m so thankful because that changed my whole perspective and it turned my thoughts from being inwards to outwards. It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about Sarah Bentley anymore. It was about what can I do to help others and serve others in this really awful time? So, I’m trying to stay healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Exercise is huge for me and not being able to go to the gym or swim or play tennis, really I have been in shock. But being able to walk outside is massive to me. Being able to just see the beauty of God’s creation and to revel in that personally, I know not everybody can do that because of where they are, but where I live. I’m so grateful for the privilege of being where I live and the beauty of it all. So that really helps me handle the stress.

So when you are talking to all these individuals who are calling you, how do you encourage them? People who are afraid or like you said who are asking, “Where is God in all of this?” What are you telling them?

Well, sometimes, I mean, I really don’t have an answer to that. I encourage them. I try and focus on the positive things that they might have done during the day and encourage them to reach out to other people and to tell them that I’m available to talk to them every day if they want to, or there are others that can do that too.

Sometimes I think, “Gosh, maybe it seems a bit trite.” But I know we’re all saying that, “We’re all going to get through this.” I know we will because I have a faith and hope in God that assures us that he’s never going to leave us. He’s never going to forsake and that he’s always with us and we will get through this together.

I’m sure it helps to hear it out loud too for many callers.

Yeah. In fact, that’s a good point because the lady yesterday said to me, “So sorry, I just really should have told you everything.” I said, “It’s fine.” She said, “But I’m still so much better for just getting it off my chest.” So you’re right. Talking about it and getting it and having someone else just be there to listen.

Right. Absolutely. So how long do you anticipate this line going on?

Well, I think for the foreseeable future. As long as it needs to, as long as we still get calls. It might be that we just keep it live for forever, maybe, I don’t know. I suppose we’ll have to review all of that down the road.

Yeah, that’s a great idea and it’s great to hear the people are really connecting with it. So, we on this podcast like to talk about doing good, obviously. I’ve been asking my recent guests to share a story that they’ve witnessed recently of somebody showing kindness or selflessness or in some way doing good despite everything that’s going on around us. So I’m wondering if you could share something?

Well, I can. It’s a friend of mine. Actually, she told me this story yesterday. She was at the grocery store and looking for bits and pieces, and she saw a beautiful orchid in the flower section and she decided, “Oh, I’ll buy that orchid and take it home.” While she was walking around the store and the flower was in her cart, a lady stepped beside her and asked her, “Where did you find that orchid?” So my friend said, “Well, it’s over in the flower section. I’ll take you over there and show you.”

So, she walked over with her and showed her where the flower was. She thanked her and said, “I just need something in my life that’s beautiful today.” Margaret went on her way and she went to the checkout. Amazingly, the woman who she’d spoken to was behind her. Margaret noticed that she hadn’t put the orchid in her car. So, my friend gave her orchids… and the woman started crying. Then, she asked her, “What’s wrong?” She said, “You have no idea what you’ve just done, you’ve just made my day. I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m just devastated.” So, in all of this, this beautiful little orchid was given and made someone’s day. They got talking and exchanged phone numbers. Now, they’re going to stay connected so that they can encourage one another.

Do Good: 

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