SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — National estimates show a third of older Americans living in nursing homes suffer from depression, and 60% don’t receive any visitors. But this week’s Jefferson Award winner has created a one-of-a-kind program to lift their spirits.

Dr. Patrick Arbore says senior citizens represent 12% of the U.S. population, but 15% of all suicides. So he’s making changes, one phone call at a time.

“We recognize you, we acknowledge your presence in the community,” he said, as though addressing seniors. “You are not invisible to us.”

Arbore founded the Friendship Line in 1973. (To reach the Friendship Line in the Bay Area, call 415-752-3778. Nationally, the number is 800-971-0016.) He says the confidential service is the only 24-hour toll-free, nationally-accredited suicide prevention hotline for senior citizens. Each year, staff and volunteers answer 40,000 calls from all over the country, and return calls to follow up.

“We really wanted to convey we’re interested in you. And we want to talk to you,” he explained.

Arbore says even a short phone call — just five minutes — can help a person go from feeling lonely to feeling connected.

“Just one person who says ‘I’m here for you’ is profound.”

Past volunteers on the Friendship Line say Arbore has inspired them with his contagious love for older adults.

“He’s incredibly calm, incredibly compassionate, shows the power in just listening,” said Amy Preut.

“I hear all the time if it wasn’t for us, they don’t know where they’d be in their lives,” added Natalie Schroeder.

Besides the Friendship Line, Arbore also founded the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention 24 years ago at the Institute on Aging to provide grief counseling and support groups.

And to combat holiday depression, he leads Songs for Seniors, a cable car caroling program he started in 1986. Hundreds of volunteers cheer up hundreds of homebound elderly.

“It does something magical,” he said. “That’s why we started doing that.”

So for creating a lifeline of friendship for seniors in crisis, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Patrick Arbore.

If you need someone to talk to, or know someone who does, please call or encourage that person to call the Friendship Line at 415-752-3778. Nationally, call toll free: 1-800-971-0016. Dr. Arbore wants all senior citizens to know we care, and you matter.

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