Photographs by William Taufic.
Sometimes the unexpected challenges in life are the very things that change it for the better. That’s what happened to Bill Bittel of Greenwich.
In 1995 Bill suffered a stroke. “I was so happy to survive that I wanted to give more, contribute to the community,” he says. “I have an involuntary tremor in my left hand. But I have my memory and all that, I can still drive and I’m really glad to be here.”
So the native of the small Western Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Zelienople—who was a former U.S. Navy flight officer, consumer products sales and marketing professional for Gulf Oil, Pepsi-Cola and Perrier, then a realtor—completed the training necessary to make companionship calls to mostly homebound seniors. And he’s been doing it ever since, as a part of Friendly Connections, run by Greenwich-based Family Centers.
A grandfather and a talker who doesn’t beat around the bush, Bill calls his clients once a week to check in and see how they’re doing. The phone calls go a long way to staving off the loneliness and sense of isolation that can overcome the elderly. “What we talk about a lot is the weather. Everybody likes to complain about that. It’s too cold, it’s too hot. But sometimes, I say hello and that’s the last word I get out. They need to talk to somebody,” he says. “And some of them think of me—at age
seventy-two—as a young whippersnapper.”
Bill stays on the phone as long as each senior wants. “Some just want forty-five seconds. They want to know that I’m thinking of them.” On alternate Thursdays, he also runs a popular call-in trivia game for seniors who are patched in on a conference line. And as part of the Friendly Visitor program run by Family Centers, Bill drives his Jeep Cherokee to the home of an older gentleman every two weeks, taking his usual seat in a club chair and listening to colorful stories.
“Bill knows the seniors look forward to his call or visit, and he doesn’t let them down,” says Rebecca Lippel, gerontologist and manager of Friendly Connections. “He has a phenomenal outlook on life and the work he does.”