This article is the second in a series taken from The Guide to Later Life [...]
The Silver Line helplineCreated by Charlotte in Being You, Learning
Esther Rantzen talks to Grannynetters about her new helpline for older people, The Silver Line.
In creating our new befriending helpline, The Silver Line, we have set ourselves the most difficult challenge: how do we reach isolated older people? Can we defeat the loneliness that wrecks so many lives? Of course loneliness exists in every age, at every stage in life. But it is particularly painful for older people who are used to being the centre of a working team, or a busy family life. The depressing impact on our mental health can be devastating, as one eighty-year old lady told me “I wake each morning, get dressed, and sit on my bed waiting for death. I have nothing else to look forward to.”
And loneliness causes physical damage too – it has been proved to injure our health as badly as obesity, or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It’s easy to see why. Loneliness can lead to poor nutrition, “why bother to cook for myself?” and lack of exercise, “It’s no fun going for a walk alone.” I don’t need scientific evidence to prove that, those last two quotes came from an article I wrote about my own life. People assume that with my luck, my enviable career, my devoted family, I have led a charmed life. But in fact, as a widow with a grown-up family, now living alone for the first time at the age of seventy-one, I discovered that I was suddenly lonely. Like many other bereaved or separated people, I hate coming home to a dark, empty flat, putting my key in the lock knowing there is nobody to ask me about my day, or to make cup of tea for, or to laugh at television with. No wonder I have long conversations with my orchids.
But I am lucky. I usually have ferociously busy days, especially with the challenge of creating our new befriending helpline, The Silver Line. I meet new people every day, at meetings or events, I often have to speak publicly about my work. But the organizer of a small telephone befriending service with a long waiting list told me recently, “When I rang one lady I noticed she sounded very hoarse. I asked her if she had a cold. She said “No, it’s just that I just haven’t spoken to anyone for a week.”
One elderly man, disabled and never leaving his own home, called his life “solitary confinement.” All he wanted, he said, was a cup of tea and a laugh with a friend. There are so many volunteer drivers working for charities like Contact the Elderly or the WRVS, why hadn’t he contacted them, so they could take him out to a lunch club, or the local pub? The trouble is that loneliness erodes confidence. Many of us find it harder and harder to cross our own thresholds as we grow older. So we retreat indoors. Disabilities like arthritis or deafness conspire to turn a home into a prison. Bereavement, retirement, the children who fly the nest, any or all of these can turn a busy, bustling family life into an empty shell. Add to all these ingredients the ageism that besets our society, so that grey hair becomes a cloak of invisibility, and no wonder all the charities and statutory agencies who work with older people confess they know there is a huge unmet demand for their services. They know that there are very many lonely older people they do not reach.
There is, I have discovered, a real stigma attached to loneliness. When I wrote about my own loneliness, I was inundated with letters in response, many of them saying “How brave of you to be so honest”. One lady who rang The Silver Line said “I think of myself as quite a chirpy person. I am surprised how down I sometimes feel”. And when we asked if she could talk to anyone else about the way she feels, she said “No. I think I’m too proud.” Our besetting sin that that so many of our generation do not want to ask for help. Older people often fail to take advantage of the financial benefits we are entitled to, even though a little extra money could make such a difference to our lives. Many of us are too proud to claim what we see as charity. Can anyone break through the carapace of pride that surrounds so many older people, preventing us from asking for help, or company?
The Silver Line pilot has proved it can – launched just before Christmas on Freephone 0800 4 70 80 90, we are already offering free advice, information and friendship to people living in the North of England and The Isle of Man, and our Helpline will launch nationally next autumn. If any callers would like to be put in touch with a Silver Line friend, who will be matched for interests and outlook, all they have to do is ring our number (we are currently looking for, and training, our volunteer befrienders – do get in touch if you would like to join us). I know from my ChildLine work over the last 26 years that a telephone call can transform a life. I hope and believe that our new Silver Line will do the same.
- Call us: 0800 4 70 80 90- our confidential 24hr Freephone helpline for older people living in the North West and The Isle of Man will be open until May 2013.
- Write to us: The Silver Line Helpline, Minerva House, 42 Wigmore Street, London, W1U 2RY.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- To register your interest in volunteering: Please email: email@example.com. Kindly include your location in the UK.
- Donations: Cheques should be made out to ‘The Silver Line Helpline’ and sent to The Silver Line, Minerva House, 42 Wigmore Street, London W1U 2RY. Online donations can be made via BT MyDonate and Just Giving or via your own PayPal account.
The Silver Line Helpline
registered charity no. 1147330 & company no: 8000807.
registered address: 40 Queen Anne Street, London, W1G 9EL.
by Esther Rantzen