Cynthia L. Cobb remembers the days of using typewriters, carbon paper and a single shared phone to help people find the care resources they need. The calls she received back then, 30-plus years ago, were mostly from people looking for support in the home, she said, someone to do laundry for them, help purchase groceries, or perhaps pay their bills.
That’s changed dramatically, the 35-year information and referral professional for Coastline Elderly Services told the organization’s Advisory Council recently. Most calls now are for crisis intervention with people more likely to ask for help finding housing than in-home support.
“There have been a lot of changes in the amount of time that I’ve been here, especially in the needs of people calling us,” said Cobb. “It’s turned into more crisis – dementia, homelessness, and financial concerns. We spend a lot more time on that kind of thing.”
Cobb is one of a handful of voices who answer the phone when someone calls Coastline, the SouthCoast region’s state-designated ASAP – Aging Service Access Point – for help. As an AIRS-certified community resource specialist in aging/disabilities, her role is to find the right resource to meet the caller’s need; but many times, she said, callers don’t know what they need or don’t understand what services they can ask for help with.
“Sometimes they’re calling and they have no idea where to start,” Cobb said. “They don’t know any of the terminology.”
That’s because services for older adults are often a confusing mix of agencies, acronyms, and eligibilities that most people are unfamiliar with until crisis hits. This includes the services that Coastline offers, each of which have different eligibility, residence, and age requirements, or specifically for homecare services, necessary income levels.
It’s I&R’s job to connect the dots between people and available resources.
“The most important thing is to get them where they need to go to get the help they need. We’re sort of like traffic directors,” Cobb said, noting that I&R also makes referrals to other agencies and services when needed.
“We listen first and gather information so we can understand why they’re calling, what it is that they’re looking for,” she said. “Sometimes they just need a referral or a phone number. If we determine they’re looking for services, then the next step is to find out what program in Coastline is the appropriate referral.”
Once services are determined, I&R works with callers to make sure they meet basic eligibility requirements. Requirements vary but might include age, income, or the town they live in. Not all programs have eligibility requirements, but some, like homecare services, do and may require copayments.
And it’s not always the person needing help who makes the call. Calls, Cobb said, can come from many sources including family members, primary care physicians, or visiting nurse associations. If it’s from someone other than the person who needs help, I&R follows up with the individual in question.
“If a doctor’s office called, then we call the individual and say, ‘We received a referral on your behalf from your doctor and we want to talk to you about that. Were you aware? Are you agreeable?’”
“We tell them the case manager will be calling you. They’ll set up an appointment with you and that they always do that first. Then they’ll come out to your home and they’ll do an assessment,” she said.
As an information and referral professional, Cobb has received training to do her job well. She is also certified through the Alliance for Information & Referral Systems, an organization which educates individuals on professional standards for I&R and certifies them when they demonstrate that they know how to use them.
Even with all of her experience and training though, calls about housing can be the most difficult to answer, Cobb said.
“What we’re getting now unfortunately is people who are looking for housing. One person had lived in an apartment for years and years and now the new owner has doubled the rent or tripled the rent and the people come to us and say, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” she said.
In these situations, Coastline refers individuals to area non-profit legal services first then considers other services, but Cobb added, the agency can’t produce housing that doesn’t exist.
“The number one problem that we see are rents going up. People can’t afford it,” said Cobb, adding, “We can’t produce an apartment. There just aren’t any.”
With a rise in elder abuse and fraud, I&R specialists are also trained to be alert to abuse and mandated to report it.
“If we identify abuse or self-neglect during our intake, we are required by law to report that to the elder abuse hotline,” Cobb said. “I probably have filed hundreds of protective reports in my time.”
For all the challenges, Cobb wouldn’t change what she does. The job is never boring, she said, not even 35 years later.
“We never know when the phone rings what that’s going to be and what we need to do. I thought I’d seen it all, but I haven’t because then I’ll get a call on something else.”