Back in 2011 I wrote an article in a national newspaper about the loneliness I felt following the death of my husband. I was taken aback by the huge response I got from that article, which clearly struck a chord for a great many people.
Admitting my own feeling was not easy: a close friend rebuked me, “How could you write like that, Esther. Haven’t you too much pride?” Loneliness carries a real stigma. People don’t like to admit to it.
I knew from experience that Childline can break through the stigma of abuse and neglect for children. I wondered whether a helpline for older people would be equally liberating. And it has been. The idea of a free, confidential helpline for older people that is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year is a relatively simple one but it has had a profound impact, transforming the lives of the most isolated older people.
And it is necessary. We are increasingly aware of the impact loneliness has on physical and mental health. Research shows loneliness can lead to depression and dementia, and it has been described as being as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is a significant problem; there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK. This makes loneliness a public health crisis, which the government needs to grasp with real purpose.
The Silver Line is on the front line, practically battling against this crisis. We are the only national service for lonely older people which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Our helpline has taken over two million calls since we launched five years ago. In the last year we received 550,000 calls, over 1,500 a day on average, up 10% on the previous year.
Three quarters of our calls come in the evenings and weekends when other services are shut. Between 8-9pm is our busiest hour of the day, public holidays like Christmas and Easter are especially busy. The demand is such that we can only answer three calls in four.
We receive no public funding and have to raise every penny we spend through the generosity of individuals, corporate partners and trusts and foundations like People’s Postcode Lottery.
As well as the 24/7 helpline, we offer other services, primarily a befriending service for older people who want a longer-term friendship. They are matched up with trained volunteers, and withholding contact details for safe-guarding reasons, we make the calls that link them. Both volunteer and caller come to look forward to their chat every week, talking about everything and anything, they create a genuine friendship.
We’ve trained over 5,000 volunteers, our Silver Line Friends, to make these weekly calls. Our service wouldn’t survive without them.
So, we feel we are doing our best to combat loneliness in older people and restore their confidence, their self-esteem, and remind them that they are valued. But what about everyone else?
Here are three changes that I think are needed.
– The government needs to fund loneliness initiatives properly. Current money is small beer, and only funds new ideas, not the services that we have proved work.
– Next, we need more non-crisis support, such as helplines, for people with mental health problems. We know of the need for this due to the calls we get when other services are closed.
– And finally, the care system needs an overhaul. Older people we speak to dislike the regular changes in carers and find the 15-minute visits they get “dehumanising”.
But change requires a totally different attitude from all over us, family, neighbours, the media, everybody. Ultimately, we all need to recognise and celebrate the value and worth of older people. When I speak to older people who call The Silver Line, they tell me they don’t want to “be a burden” and that their families and their neighbours are “too busy” so they rarely see them. This isn’t good enough. It’s time to ensure our older citizens are given the emotional and physical support they need and deserve, including and especially the older people in our own lives.