When spouses and friends pass away and ailments keep them confined to their homes, some seniors become isolated and depressed, putting them at risk for an early death.

Four free telephone programs in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Edmonton and P.E.I. are seeking to change that with a simple phone call service.

The program is called Seniors’ Centre Without Walls and it’s essentially a giant conference call for seniors. The program allows lonely seniors to chat with and learn from others around the country -- all without having to leave their homes.

Alice Laverty takes part in the program. Like countless Canadian seniors, she lives alone, a solitude worsened by the fact she is also legally blind. But almost every day, she picks up the phone and takes part in a call.

“Sometimes when you have a blue day, you feel like you are lonely and need somebody that makes you feel a bit better,” she says.

Some of the phone calls are just for chatting; others include trivia games geared to seniors; while others include short stories or news items read to them over the phone. Some calls are just a half-hour long, others go on for twice that long.

The phone services also provide brain stimulation, which has been shown to help delay cognitive decline.

Rachel Sutcliffe, the co-ordinator of the program at the Good Companions Seniors Centre in Ottawa, says when seniors can’t get out to socialize, the program brings the socialization to them.

“They love hearing each other’s voices on the phone. It is their family, it is their friends -- for a lot of them it is a lifeline. These are the only people that they will talk to that day or even that week,” Sutcliffe says.

While seniors can always listen to the radio or watch TV, that provides them with no human interaction, Sutcliffe says. And while many seniors can access the internet, others who can’t likely already own a telephone, so dialing into the calls is simple.

The phone program in Winnipeg has helped 86-year-old Jean Feliksiak cope with the recent death of her husband, helping her build new friendships.

“We don't see each other's faces but we recognize each other's voices,” she says.

Sutcliffe says the service can sometimes help seniors learn about important information they need to know. Last spring, for example, they brought in a speaker from the Ottawa Heart Institute who spoke to callers about heart health.

One of the callers realized while listening in that the rhythm disturbances she was feeling in her own heart were not normal. After asking a few questions, she made an appointment at the Heart Institute and three weeks later, had a pacemaker put in.

Others say the program has rekindled their spark for life, including one participant who was inspired to start writing short stories and poems again. Sutcliffe says it’s a program that’s fighting the loneliness that old age so often brings.

“We have had people who said they used to sit and stare at a wall all day. And now they have something to get up for in the morning. They have a purpose again,” she said.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip