New Motion Picture & Television Fund Initiative Combats Loneliness Epidemic

Courtesy of MPTF

The new grassroots plan links volunteers with industry veterans in need, offering a few phone calls a week for the young, old, disabled or isolated.

With the rise of social media it's easy to assume people are more connected than ever, yet loneliness is at chronic levels, doubling to 40 percent over the past 40 years. According to the MPTF (Motion Picture & Television Fund), a third of Americans older than 67 live alone, as do half of people older than 85. Among a number of risks associated with loneliness are a 29 percent higher chance of heart disease and a 32 percent greater likelihood of stroke.

"Research indicates that levels of loneliness are actually increasing across different age groups. We have this thing where we do a really good job of connecting people,” MPTF chief innovation officer and geriatrician Scott Kaiser tells The Hollywood Reporter during a break in his office at the organization’s Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills.

He's talking about The Daily Call Sheet, a new program connecting volunteers with those in need, often elderly or with disabilities. Just a few phone calls a week, exchanging war stories about the industry, or checking in, can have a dramatic effect.

The Daily Call Sheet, which is broadening its reach in the MPTF community after a three-month trial, is modeled after the successful Silver Line program in the U.K. and similar efforts in Canada. Working with AARP Foundation, the idea is to scale up, step-by-step, through local and regional networks. "It's simple, we have a project manager, we match volunteers in a simple phone system," explains Kaiser. "The expenses are low, especially once you have the playbook."

That's where Maureen Feldman comes in. As MPTF’s Social Isolation Impact Project Manager, she trains volunteers, assembling a template along the way, which she can make available to communities anywhere to adapt to their needs. "It's a very simple application to a problem that’s only going to get bigger, and we can do it," says Feldman.

It begins with the connection. Once that's established, a volunteer can guide a new friend toward events or services in their neighborhood that might fit their needs and interests. Volunteers are trained to listen for clues as to whether someone has run out of medicine or might not be eating right, and ensure that potential problems are dealt with.     

Right off the 101 in Woodland Hills, the entrance to MPTF's campus is aptly named "Spielberg Way." There, the organization services 250 full-time residents in facilities like the Jodie Foster Aquatic Center, the John Ford Chapel, and the Saban Center for Health and Wellness. But the MPTF also reaches off campus to thousands of industry people of all ages with services ranging from daycare to financial support.

In 2016, it celebrated its 95th birthday — it was founded in 1921 when founder Mary Pickford set out a galvanized bucket for donations on her film set. Partnering with her were United Artists principals Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Pickford’s husband, Douglas Fairbanks.  

"Harry needs a new toupee. Sally needs a new dress. Henry can't pay the rent on his apartment," MPTF CEO Bob Beitcher explains about a different set of demands on the organization back when the industry was so new that there weren't yet any old-timers. "Some were returning World War I veterans, some involved with bond sales for the first-time war effort. They figured, 'Hey, we're famous people, and we can do socially positive things because people listen to us.' Ninety-six years later, we still essentially do the same thing with a larger group with more comprehensive programs and services.”

In 2009, the organization was shaken by spiraling health care costs amid the crush of the recession, but Jeffrey Katzenberg, MPTF chairman since 1994, and board members George Clooney and Jim Gianopulos helped the organization meet its $50 million annual operating budget through donations and fundraising events like the annual "Night Before" gathering on the eve of the Oscars.

"One reason for the loneliness epidemic is the fact that people are living longer, and with baby boomers in retirement age, there are more of them," explains Feldman, noting that the sky-high cost of assisted-living facilities means more people are aging at home.

"[The Daily Call Sheet] is an opportunity to extend the good work that MPTF does in terms of taking care of its own," said Kaiser, citing the organization's mantra. "It's about creating a platform where people can help each other so we can all live well and age well and all have dignity and all enjoy a sense of purpose."