Good Practice Stories

Merri Health Phone Buddies

Connecting older people through facilitated phone calls



Participant talking to buddy
Participant talking to her buddy as part of their weekly catch up.


In March 2020 Merri Health was running centre and community based programmes in community languages for groups of 20-35 older people.

Then everything changed.

When the first COVID-19 lockdown began, the social support team quickly switched to staying in contact with participants over the phone and sending out wellbeing packs. In-person social support groups moved to group phone calls. The team found participants wanted news of their peers from the group but were reluctant make a phone call themselves.

Staff facilitated one-on-one phone conversations between participants so they could maintain and strengthen social connections during a time of vulnerability to social isolation.

We spoke with Phil Peladarinos, Team Leader, Social Support Programs.


Phone Buddies story V01
Phil Peladarinos


We’re inspired by Phil’s leadership and the resilience of his team. We hope you are too.

Phone Buddies

Phil: So suddenly, we had to change the way we operate. We had to find new and innovative ways to communicate with and support our clients. Not a lot of our clients have smartphones. So everything was happening over the landline. People started missing their friends from the group. They asked staff, ‘Well, how is so and so doing? Have you heard from them?’

Some of our staff said, ‘Well, while I’ve got you on the phone, would you like us to call this person and you can talk to them directly? ’

That’s how it started.

We dial the numbers and hook them together. We play a little bit of a monitoring role and try to help the conversation if they get stuck. We have people of different cognitive abilities and we support them. They talk to their friend from the group or we connect people with similar interests like gardening or if they come from the same region of Italy.


Staff member setting up phone call
Staff member setting up a phone call for the phone buddies

Buddies talk in their preferred language

Language is important. One of the constant challenges for us is how to accommodate people because they want someone to speak in their own language. When you can express yourself without any difficulties you get more out of that interaction. It’s therapeutic, especially for our people with cognitive deficit.

Participants supporting participants

We have a participant who has an acquired brain injury. This has impaired her cognitive abilities but she loves to chat and she wanted someone to talk to regularly. But talking to her sometimes can be challenging.

A couple of participants said, ‘Ah, yeah, I will be in it. I will talk to her.’ This has been going successfully for months. Participants are supporting each other and we’re very excited about that.

Phone Buddies moving towards independence

We want our participants to start having more contact without our support. If they need to they can refer to us, but we want them to have this opportunity outside our normal hours. For some reason, there’s a reluctance to do that without our facilitation. We’re starting to move away slowly after the connection has been going nicely for a while. Then we go into a monitoring role rather than listening to the whole conversation.

Video Buddies

Some participants say they’d like to have visual contact. We’re starting a new programme that’s a video conferencing one. We have 3 Greek participants who are going to pilot that. It’s a morning catch-up. That’s what they wanted. Have a cup of coffee and a chat in the morning.

COVID Normal

We’re planning to resume centre-based programmes. But instead of having 35 people in a group, we’re talking less than 10. So the new phone and video chat services we’ve developed will continue because it gives us a lot of opportunity to promote social connections and accessibility.In the past, people did not attend a group when they felt a bit unwell or tired. But hey, now they can phone or video call.

The phone buddy programme has broken down geographic barriers too. Someone may live in, I don’t know, Whittlesea, and they can’t really come to Brunswick because it’s too far. Now they can participate.

The biggest thing we learned

The biggest thing we learned was to listen more. We talk to our participants and find out what they like. We realised how flexible and agile we can be.


Thank you Phil for sharing your inspiring story.

Photos supplied by Merri Health




Staff member setting up a phone-call for the phone buddies