In the fight against the health impacts of social isolation on our most vulnerable Americans, heroes take many shapes. In this three-part series, Wider Circle recognizes the everyday change-makers who are stepping up, in ways big and small, to support their neighbors in need of social connection and essential supplies during this health crisis. 

Retired Business Executive Uses the Gift of Gab to Support and Inform Seniors in Isolation

When the coronavirus pandemic swept through California, 73-year-old Fresno County resident Tony Benito was putting the finishing touches on an event he was organizing for his local chapter of Wider Circle. The group gathered regularly to enjoy one another’s company and stay healthy. “We were going miniature golfing, and it was so heartbreaking to tell them we weren’t going to see each other for a while. We were anxious and worried about the quarantine, but I assured them we were still going to connect online and over the phone until it was safe to gather again,” Benito recounted. 

Mr. Benito and his wife Kandee joined Wider Circle in 2018 after attending a local kick-off meeting, and just a few months later he earned the role of lead ambassador for the Fresno County area group, comprised of over 1400 members. A former auto sales manager with an MBA, Benito put his skills to work organizing chapter meetings, welcoming new members, and educating others about their health plan benefits. With the current health crisis, he plays a critical role in helping members stay connected by serving as a Volunteer Phone Buddy as part of the Wider Circle COVID-19 Support Program. With social isolation, a growing challenge with serious health implications, especially among seniors, the phone buddy initiative empowers members to help one another by countering feelings of loneliness, and connects more vulnerable neighbors with food and essential resources to which they might not otherwise have access. Since the program launched in April, Benito and his fellow volunteers have completed more than 30,000 calls. 

“We have a lot of members who are alone and don’t have a lot of family to turn to. I really like to call them and just have a friendly conversation. Sometimes an hour will go by just like that — it’s good for them and it’s good for me. Doing good feels good, and it is in our nature to do good things for others, sharing love and advice,” Benito said. He makes up to 20 calls per day, every day.

Benito has also found that the benefits of social connectedness go beyond the buddy calls themselves. “These calls actually help my friends become healthier. Things come up during our conversations that they may not normally think about. I remind them about over-the-counter medications and share resources so they know what’s available to them. I ask them if they’ve scheduled their annual wellness visit, and if their health information is up to date. I think the reason a lot of members don’t do these things is that they need some extra support and motivation. As neighbors and friends, we can support each other to take that step.” 

“Doing good feels good, and it is in our nature to do good things for others, sharing love and advice.”

– Tony

Additionally, Benito is a source of inspiration for those suffering from anxiety and depression due to social isolation, something he discovered early on in the phone buddy program. “A few minutes into my first call with an elderly woman suffering from several health issues, she confided that she was experiencing severe bouts of sadness being stuck inside all day. She was isolated from family visits and unable to get to the store.” Benito set her up with a food delivery service through Wider Circle and encouraged her to get outside and walk every day. “She called me back to thank me the following week, happy to report that she worked her way up to 20-minute walks per day and was feeling so much better.” Benito continues to check on her and other members experiencing similar challenges with depression, forming new and unexpected friendships along the way.

 “Our members really look up to Tony. He has quickly become a trusted friend and leader who is always there to help, whether in person or over the phone. He is the best!” said Denise Doyle, Lead Facilitator for the Fresno and Bakersfield area. Benito is currently working with Doyle and other Wider Circle staff on a plan for the “new normal” once social distancing restrictions are fully lifted. “It will likely be a combination of the new virtual peer-to-peer programming and our popular in-person events. We are all looking forward to hugging and laughing together again…and playing more miniature golf!” Benito said.

For now, Benito keeps busy with his phone buddies and building 10-foot planter boxes in his backyard. “It’s so important to keep your mind off things during these difficult times. My advice is to turn off the news and enjoy what makes you happy and healthy. Call a friend and make them smile, get outside and enjoy some sunshine, do some low-impact exercises to keep your heart and muscles healthy.”

Sage advice from a true community hero.

Click here to read part 2 of our series, featuring frontline hero Robin Anderson-Wood, Wider Circle Lead Facilitator – San Francisco Bay Area.

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About the author: Brian Christina