Someone On The Line
By PAULA SPAN
On Friday afternoon, the federal Administration on Aging unveils its new, improved elder care locator. The major change: anyone who dials the toll-free number, (800) 677-1116, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time on weekdays should get an actual human on the line, ready to answer questions about government services and refer seniors and caregivers to local agencies that can help.
“My strong personal preference is that the best way to provide consumer assistance is in person — face to face, or on the phone,” said Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the federal Department of Health and Human Services. “Talking to someone about a situation, providing direction — there’s no substitute.”
The locator, intended as the first stop for those seeking services for older people in their counties, began as a phone service in 1991 and a decade later added a popular Web site, www.eldercare.gov. It had live operators until two years ago, when it switched to a recorded routing system.
I tried that system myself recently, asking about transportation services in Cumberland County, N.J., where my father lives. It worked reasonably well — I’ve certainly encountered worse automated systems — but some callers might have given up when the system failed, three times, to understand the city and state I kept enunciating as clearly as possible. I punched in my dad’s ZIP code, and that did the trick. I was connected to a person in Bridgeton, N.J., who told me how my father should apply.
“People didn’t get a live voice,” Ms. Greenlee said of the call system. This might explain why only 177,000 people called last year, while 1.9 million used the Web site. Starting Friday, though, five information specialists and two elder care counselors will handle calls in English and Spanish (a separate “language line” will assist those who speak other languages).
The staff can provide general information on Medicare and Medicaid eligibility and benefits, Social Security, food stamps and food delivery services, transportation, long-term care, caregiver support, protection against elder abuse and more.