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Many people may never know what it truly means to be lonely until their children grow up or friends and spouse die, leaving them alone. But when loneliness sets in, a voice on the other end of a telephone line can become a breath of life for many.

At least that's what operators at Brigham Young University's Senior Helpline are hearing from callers as far away as Illinois and New Jersey.Kathleen Ammon, Helpline assistant, said: "We get calls from all over saying what a wonderful program we have. It is good because it is available 24 hours a day. When a person wakes up and is lonely, it's there seven days a week, including holidays."

The Senior Helpline is a service that allows the elderly and those who care for them to dial a toll-free number and receive recorded information about topics pertinent to aging. It has been in operation for 11/2 years at BYU.

Ammon said the service receives at least 50 calls a day, some from regular callers.

One such caller, a woman from Illinois, told Ammon that she calls every day to listen to a different message and would be lost without the program.

The Helpline offers 102 messages ranging from "Creating More Loving Relationships" to "You and Your Blood Pressure" to "How to Prevent Mugging." The most popular message, however, is "Coping with Emotional Stress."

Most people would not expect senior citizens to have stress, but Ammon said they worry about losing their occupation, their loved ones and their identity.

The health topics are beneficial because listeners can hear messages about constipation or bladder control as often as needed without being embarrassed, Ammon said.

"Sometimes they feel like they don't know as much as they want to," she said. "Nobody knows what they are listening to, and they are in the privacy of their home."

Sol Wieder, the editor and publisher of Consumer Awareness and a lecturer to elderly groups, said, "The elderly lack information, but are afraid to probe. They don't ask their doctor more than two questions because they are intimidated. The messages offer encouragement. They enlighten and ease the burden."

Ann Goldberg, an employee with the Tucson Medical Center in Arizona, said she works with respiratory patients and sometimes they become panicky when they can't breathe. "Many are old and know they will die soon. The program is helpful nights and weekends when they don't know who to call."

Messages about legal help also are frequently called. The directory includes the names and address of foundations and professional organizations that can provide in-depth help on selected topics such as "Wills and Trusts."

And the Helpline is something listeners can afford. All it requires is a phone, Ammon said.

Susan Larsen, a counselor with Spectrum Learning in Montana, said, "This program is excellent for people in rural areas who can't get out and receive the help they need. There is a particular need in rural areas because of the lack of access to professions, libraries, government agencies and other resources."

Messages are non-denominational and were written by experts from throughout the country. Irwin Goodman, director of the program, said the Senior Helpline is the only one of its kind directed at aging.

Goodman's staff is researching alternative ways of recording messages so they are more interesting for listeners. That may include question-and-answer formats or speeches by noted authorities.

The department also wants to add another phone line and additional messages but is in need of funds to do so.

Phileon Robinson, former director of the BYU gerontology department, started the program as part of the Gerontology Resource Center. He wanted to reach as many seniors as possible and to keep within the mission of BYU to educate elderly people.

The service is available to callers with touch-tone telephones in all 50 states and Puerto Rico 24 hours a day. Those with rotary dial or pulse dial phones can call from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For a free BYU Senior Helpline brochure, complete with a list of messages and dialing instructions, call toll-free 1-800-333-2433 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday or write to the Help-line, F-274 HFAC, BYU, Provo, UT 84602.