Judy Jackson, next to crochet and needlepoint pieces she’s created, receives check-in calls asking if she’s in need of emergency help from the Alta Bates program Tele-Care. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Judy Jackson, next to crochet and needlepoint pieces she’s created, receives check-in calls asking if she’s in need of emergency help from the Alta Bates program Tele-Care. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Both times Selma Rockett had a heart attack, she knew she wouldn’t be left to lie there on the floor for long.

Rockett, 75, is a long-time participant in Tele-Care, an Alta Bates Summit Medical Center program that has provided free daily or weekly check-in calls to East Bay residents since 1970.

Thirty or so volunteers collectively make 9,000 to 10,000 calls each month for the program. They send clients bouquets of flowers on their birthdays and invite them to social events.

When the callers can’t reach the clients, they try their emergency contacts, who can then go check on them at home to make sure nothing’s gone wrong.

“It’s truly a life-saving feature for us,” said Rockett. “I’m a 75-year-old, single, disabled senior in wheelchair.” She lives alone with her dog, who provides companionship but won’t help her get to the hospital next time she falls. In emergencies, Tele-Care has notified Rockett’s sister, who drops by to help her.

“We deal with a lot of at-risk clients, and help people stay in their homes as long as possible,” said manager Sabra Learner, who’s worked with Tele-Care for 19 years.

The program’s participants and volunteers got worried recently when they heard about major changes coming to the program. A newsletter sent by Tele-Care staff said Sutter, the healthcare giant that owns Alta Bates Summit, would be slashing those follow-up calls to emergency contacts, and eliminating Tele-Care’s two paid staff positions. To the nearly 400 clients who rely on Tele-Care, that news caused serious concern.

Sutter representatives said the changes planned for Tele-Care hardly constitute the overhaul some have feared, however. They said the company is committed to ensuring a “long life” for the program, which is run out of the Herrick Campus on Dwight Way and Milvia Street. The plans described in the Tele-Care newsletter are “misinformation,” and “giving me quite a bit of concern,” said Austin Ord, Sutter’s Bay Area director of post-acute care.

With contradictory messages coming from different parties, it’s not clear what has been said in the past or what, exactly, the future of Tele-Care will look like.

Ord said the Alta Bates volunteer and chaplaincy department will oversee Tele-Care services in the future, rather than his office. That way, directors closer to the physical program can supervise it instead. He said the Tele-Care manager position will be retained, and expanded to include “new responsibilities.” The paid clerical position, which had been reduced from two at one point, will be cut.

As for the beloved follow-up call feature, Ord said he’s been “quite clear that that function needs to remain, but we have to find a way to do it efficiently and effectively.”

Tele-Care is run out of the Herrick Hospital campus on Dwight Way. Photo: Google Maps

Tele-Care’s funding source will change as well. Currently run with philanthropic funds, Tele-Care will now be drawn into the regular operational budget, a move Ord said will help Sutter sustain the program, which will no longer need to rely on unpredictable grants.

“We recognize the program’s value but because we’re absorbing it into operational, we want to make sure we’re being super responsible with limited dollars,” Ord said. “There’s been a lot of inefficiencies with a program that was homegrown 40 years ago.”

Berkeleyside asked for the current Tele-Care budget and the estimated new budget earlier this week, but a Sutter spokeswoman said she could not locate those figures by press time.

People associated with Tele-Care said the two staff salaries and office costs seemed like a small price to pay for the mostly volunteer-powered program that serves hundreds of clients.

Shoehalter, 94, said he comes home from his volunteer Tele-Care shift “joyful and enthusiastic” every week. But he is planning to resign over the upcoming changes.

Nat Shoehalter, a Tele-Care volunteer for the past 19 years, said it’s his perception that “the Sutter bottom line is, ‘Let’s save as much money as we can and still perform the services a medical institution should.’” Sutter has faced criticism from Berkeley officials and community members over plans to relocate the Alta Bates campus’s emergency and delivery services to Oakland.

The 94-year-old Shoehalter said he comes home from his volunteer Tele-Care shift “joyful and enthusiastic” every week. But he is planning to resign over the upcoming changes.

“Personally, I’m going to miss talking to 100 people every Friday,” he said. Among those are a 99-year-old woman who’s “the most charming old lady I’ve ever spoken to,” and a younger man who became blind as an adult and chats with Shoehalter about sports statistics and old-time athletes.

“We’ve never met, but we have an affinity that’s wonderful,” Shoehalter said. When he makes his calls, he has the client’s information — the medication they take, their doctor, their age, any notes from the previous day’s caller — in front of him, and can ask relevant questions.

“Our volunteers are superb,” Learner, the program manager, said. “They have a great sensitivity to the nuance of voice and tone. They’re very good at spotting discrepancies and reductions in cognitive abilities.” (Learner declined to comment for this article on the upcoming changes.)

An Alta Bates nurse and others write letters to Sutter in February as part of a campaign to retain emergency and delivery services at the Berkeley hospital. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The caller’s approach varies depending on the client’s circumstances. If the client is anxious about a health issue, the caller helps calm them down and makes sure they’ve eaten or taken their medication, Learner said. The volunteer makes sure the client knows they can go to the doctor if necessary, but often says they’ll call back in 15 minutes to check in, in case the client is feeling better.

“We’re not hesitant to call 911” if necessary, Learner said. But sometimes a visit from a neighbor or a friendly voice does the job. According to Learner and the Sutter philanthropy website, the program has reduced clients’ ER visits and falls.

“All the research shows that outside social support beyond family and friends make a critical difference in health outcomes,” she said.

Sutter representatives said they share Learner’s goal of prevention.

“We want to keep them healthy, engaged members of our community,” Ord said. “Social isolation and depression are concerns for all elderly adults, but especially those who live alone. The major concern is when you’re depressed, you’re not going to take steps to go to primary care, or to the pharmacy. From a medical perspective, that matters so much.”

Judy Jackson said she’s used Tele-Care for four years, during the days when she’s alone in her Berkeley senior affordable housing complex. Sometimes she has an aide around, but other days, “I have someone to check in, in case I fall.”

Jackson has a chronic lung disease and diabetes, and doesn’t get out of her apartment very often, she said. Many other tenants in her building are in the same situation, she said, including a man who recently died in his apartment on a Friday and wasn’t discovered until Monday.

“A couple times when I was really sick, having someone check on me was needed. I don’t have relatives in the area,” Jackson said. The benefit is “not being afraid that you’re going to be 24 hours on the floor before your caregivers come.”

Jackson is among the many Tele-Care clients hoping they’ll keep hearing their phones ring.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...