Phone calls from UFT retirees are up 100% since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as members seek information and support from the UFT Welfare Fund Retiree Social Services Department.
Christopher Chin, the department's director, reports a continuing surge of calls from retirees having a difficult time managing the challenges of the yearlong pandemic. Some retirees need practical, concrete assistance with problems such as food delivery, access to Meals on Wheels or referrals for home care, while others are feeling overwhelmed as the threat of the virus grows, making them feel vulnerable, anxious and isolated.
"Their fears are understandable given the scope and length of the pandemic," Chin said. "So we want to make sure retirees are aware of the ways this department is available to provide practical and emotional support through its various programs during the pandemic."
During the first few months of the pandemic in 2020, retiree program staffers, UFT coordinators and volunteers made tens of thousands of phone calls to UFT retirees throughout the country to say "How are you?" and to ensure their safety and provide follow-up support when needed. Many retirees requested follow-up calls and became part of the Telephone Reassurance Program, a service that today provides 150 short, friendly check-in calls on a regular weekly schedule for as long as the retiree wants them.
Staffer Amy Murray, a geriatric social worker for 15 years, said, "There's no guidebook for this work. Retirees just like knowing we're here, that we listen and that we find the answers they need and call back." Murray said one of her regulars refers to her as "my new old friend."
Many of the incoming calls are from retiree family members who need information about insurance during bereavement or have concerns about hospital care. Now, retiree calls are also about the vaccine and how and where to get it.
"The pandemic has triggered more anxiety and depression," social worker and program coordinator Temmi Merlis reports, "so we are providing more short-term counseling. When two or three sessions are not enough, we refer retirees for more in-depth counseling."
She helped a wife who had to use an iPad to say goodbye to her husband, who was dying of the virus in a hospital. The woman was worried about what she would have to do after he died.
"Knowing we are here, that they are not forgotten but valued, means everything to our retirees," Merlis said.
The pandemic may cause past trauma to resurface or cause inconsolable depression or anxiety due to isolation and health risks. Chin said Merlis sensed depression in a Florida retiree who was seeking home care help due to decreased mobility, and she referred the retiree to a therapist in his area. "He was thankful for someone acknowledging his feelings," Chin said.
For retirees suffering the loss of someone, the union's Member Assistance Program provides bereavement help so they don't have to face the loss alone. They can connect with other members at www.uft.org/bereavement-support-group.
Chin advises retirees not to wait until they feel they are in an emergency crisis before reaching out to the union to talk to someone.
Any of the UFT retiree social services can be reached at 212-598-6880 from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are also mental health hotlines staffed by trained mental health professionals available at any time of the day or night.
The National Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 is available to retirees nationwide.