Patrick Arbore, who turned a one-man suicide help line into the renowned Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Counseling at the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, died on May 27. The cause of death was cancer. Arbore was 75.

By the time of Arbore’s death, the initial home-based help line founded 50 years ago in 1973 had evolved into a nationally accredited Friendship Line that handled 350,000 calls from lonely or despondent adults last year and receives regular funding from the state of California. And the Center has provided in-person grief support and other counseling for thousands of individuals.

“It all goes back to Patrick,” said Tom Briody, chief executive officer at the Institute on Aging, “He was exceptional in understanding social isolation and loneliness among older adults.”

To those who knew him or benefited from his counseling, Arbore was not only greatly admired; he was beloved. He combined deep insight into human suffering, rooted in his own traumatic childhood, with a gentle, caring manner.

“He was a skilled therapist, and at the same time he was just full of compassion,” said Brian Cahill, former executive director of Catholic Charities in San Francisco, who spent 10 years in the monthly grief support group after his son, John, a San Jose police officer, took his own life. 

“At the start, I never wanted to go to group, but I did go, and every time I found grace and wisdom, not just from him but as if he imbued everyone there with it,” Cahill said. “Patrick was incredibly gentle yet really strong at the same time.”

Elizabeth Strand, Zachary Arbore and Patrick Arbore. (Family photo via Bay City News)

Patrick Robert Arbore was born on December 26, 1947 and grew up next to a dairy farm outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He was one of four boys in a turbulent household. Their father, a truck driver, was an abusive alcoholic.

By his late teens, Arbore had fled his home and engaged in more than one unsuccessful suicide attempt. He told friends later that he had been gone from home a year before his father even realized he was missing, and it was at least in part through his own difficult experience as a youth, acquaintances said, that Arbore was so acutely attuned to the pain of others. 

After graduating from high school in Latrobe, Arbore began acting with a theater group, the Pittsburgh Playhouse. When the group took a road trip to the West Coast, he traveled to San Francisco with $200 in his pocket, and once in the city he never went home.

Skilled at both shorthand and typing, Arbore took work as an administrative assistant in the Financial District while attending school. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at San Francisco State University and, some years later, a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of San Francisco.

Armed with an education and possessed of great natural empathy, Abore began working as a therapist. His practice was opened to all, even those with a limited ability to pay. He had no hard-and-fast rate for therapy. People who needed help got it, and he would say, “Pay what you can and what you think it’s worth.”

Early on Arbore became especially interested in the problems of the elderly, both the isolation so many older people faced, and the unresolved grief of the bereaved. That interest was furthered when Arbore tried to process his own grief after discovering the body of an older person who had committed suicide.

“I tried to find a grief support group, and there were (none) that met the trauma I had experienced,” he said in a 2017 interview on the “Open to Hope” podcast. “I wanted to do something in that area – to help prevent older suicides due to emotional issues and to provide support for those who are bereaved.”

And so was born the call-in line, established in 1973 with the specific goal of helping counter the isolation frequently felt by the elderly.

“We wanted to convey that we recognize you, we’re interested in you and we want to talk to you,” Arbore said in a 2014 television interview after receiving a Jefferson Award for Public Service. “It is so profound if just one person says, ‘I am here for you.'” 

Arbor’s approach to the call-ins led him to eschew the terms “hotline” or “crisis line” in favor of the Friendship Line, a name he considered less confrontational and more conversational.

Carla Perissinotto, a doctor of geriatric and palliative medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, has spent many years studying loneliness and isolation in older adults. Through that work, she grew to know Arbore well.

“Loneliness is an independent predictor of death and illness, and Patrick knew that forming friendships and connections is critical,” Perissinotto said. “We are finding that the Friendship Line forms a critical need for older adults, who have different needs than younger people. One example: the line is 24 hours, and loneliness doesn’t just exist 9 to 5.”

In the same year the Friendship Line was established, there was an important development in Arbore’s personal line when he met Elizabeth Strand, a San Francisco social worker.

“A friend at work told me Patrick had a group at his house, like a salon or an encounter group, where they talked about real things, not just superficial stuff,” Strand said. “I went once and kept on going.”

Strand and Arbore were married in 1978, and in 1979 they had a son, Zachary Jeremiah Arbore. The couple later divorced but remained close.

As the Friendship Line grew, it was incorporated into the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Counseling, which Arbore founded and directed at the Institute on Aging. There, Arbore also offered in-person grief counseling for people who had lost loved ones to suicide.

San Franciscan Linda McKay’s husband, Eric, a skateboard manufacturer and co-founder of Thrasher magazine, took his own life in 2011. A neighbor told McKay about Arbore, and she began seeing him for therapy – in one-on-one sessions, in a Saturday drop-in group and eventually in eight-week grieving courses. 

As part of the group course, grievers brought in memorabilia and wrote a letter to the person who had died.

“It was amazing to see how people in the group opened up to their emotions as they appreciated each other’s losses. Our society doesn’t teach that, but over time, I grew to understand, and then I wanted to give back,” said McKay, a restaurant designer who is also now herself a volunteer grief counselor at the Center.

In 1984, Arbore was working on the Friendship Line talking to a woman who was particularly lonely and sad at Christmas time. Moved by the conversation, Abore and a friend jumped in a car and went to sing holiday carols to the woman, whose spirits were greatly brightened. 

The impromptu visit was so successful that it was repeated and grew year after year, becoming known as Cable Car Caroling after the motorized cable cars that volunteers took in their holiday visits to assisted living facilities and other shut-in elderly people. The event doubled as a fundraiser for the Friendship Line. In 2019, before it was halted by Covid, 550 carolers took 15 motorized cable cars to sing for more than 1000 seniors and adults living with disabilities, raising more than $100,000 from donors.

“These were wonderful gatherings that brought joy and a bit of holiday spirit  to people in assisted living,” said James Davis, a San Francisco physician and 11-year board member at the Institute on Aging. “Once again, it was a way to show people with difficulties that there were people who cared.

“And Patrick Arbore led the way,” Davis said. “He had this warm embracing personality; everybody felt comforted by their interaction with him.”

Said McKay: “He’s being missed by thousands of people.”

Throughout his career, Arbore gave workshops and lectures nationally. He wrote numerous articles and book chapters; was a senior lecturer at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont; an adjunct faculty member at the University of California, Davis; and a member of the adjunct faculty at the Wright Institute in Berkeley.

Along with Elizabeth Strand and Zachary (Renee), Arbore is survived by three brothers: Darrell (Tracey) and Michael, both living outside Latrobe; and Richard (Andrea) of Hilton Head Island, SC.

Open house gatherings take place from 5-8 pm June 26 and 27 at Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City. Final Blessing at 11 am June 28 at the Mausoleum in Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma. Reception to follow. Donations may be made in Arbore’s memory to the Friendship Line, ℅ The Institute on Aging, 3575 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94118.