The key, Kenneth Pressley said, is listening to what the worried caller is “not” saying.


For about seven months, Pressley has been one of five full-time customer-service specialists staffing the hotline at ElderSource, the state-designated Agency on Aging and Aging Disability Resource Center for seven Northeast Florida counties.

Some of the callers he talks with just want a phone number to a particular kind of agency.

Others are clearly in crisis and so upset they are unable to say exactly what they need, or are too embarrassed to say.

“I don’t know what’s going on and they don’t know why they’re calling,” Pressley said. “They just need to get a problem resolved.”

So he gently starts digging, he said. He finds out what prompted seniors to call in the first place. He asks a series of questions to find out what else they really need. They may have called about an overdue electric bill, fearing they would soon be in the dark. But they also may be ill or injured or have no food.

Pressley tells them everything is going to be OK.

Then he sifts through a database of programs, matches callers to which ones can meet their needs and begins the referral process. About 80 percent of the callers’ problems can be solved immediately; sometimes it may take a day or two. Regardless, the resolution leaves the senior’s dignity intact.

“They have a right to be valued,” he said.

Pressley and his hotline colleagues, who work at a call center on the second floor of the ElderSource building on the Southside, take about 3,000 calls a month. But that volume is expected to increase because of changes in Medicaid managed care, as well as continuing growth in the elder population and the cost of living and health care, said Linda Levin, executive director of ElderSource.

“There are more and more people calling in,” and for each call a hotline staffer takes, “there are many more waiting,” she said. “There is always going to be one more person.”

The callers are getting younger, on the lower end of the age-60-and-up crowd the agency serves. Some of them are seniors’ caregivers or relatives from outside Northeast Florida. The common ground is that they have a senior problem to solve.

“We give them a place to call,” Levin said.

ElderSource is the only Agency on Aging in Florida accredited by The Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. In addition to hotline staff, 10 other customer-service specialists make about 6,000 outbound calls a month to screen seniors for specific programs, help them apply for Medicaid or handle other issues that typically require an extended phone conversation.

Levin said staffing the hotline requires patience, compassion and well-developed listening skills.

“I can’t imagine doing this job, hearing some of the calls,” she said. “They want to help so many people.”

They focus on one at a time and give that one their undivided attention, for as long as it takes.

“They are telling us a story,” said Judy Brackenridge, lead customer-service specialist who has worked at ElderSource for three years.

Providing a happy ending to their story is “emotionally rewarding,” she said. “You can’t even put a price tag on it. It’s that gratifying.”

Sometimes the callers call back — to give thanks. Or they do so when ElderSource makes follow-up calls to make sure they are OK.

“They are amazed. They appreciate it so much,” Brackenridge said. “We have a start and an end.”


Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109