Loneliness as you get older is a punishment no-one should have to suffer, yet that’s exactly what thousands are faced with. Here’s Esther Rantzen, who founded The Silver Line, on why everyone needs someone to talk to.
Ellen, a widow in her eighties, wrote to tell me about her family. Her husband and son had died, she has a devoted daughter who visits her twice a week, ‘but because I have health problems I can go three days without seeing or speaking to anyone. I’m an optimist by nature, and sometimes I have to be when I spend another pointless day, feeling that I am a waste of space’.
Why should a clever active woman like Ellen, on whom her family relied, now consider herself a waste of space? That’s what loneliness does. It attacks confidence, self-esteem, and both physical and mental health suffers. And yet it can be so easily cured. All it takes is company. And it doesn’t have to be face to face.
Speaking over the phone
For just over a year, the charity Silver Line Helpline (0800 4 70 80 90) has been answering phone calls from older people. It’s free for them to call, and it’s also confidential and open 24/7. ‘When I get off the phone,’ said John aged 80, who regularly speaks to The Silver Line, ‘I feel like I belong to the human race’. Surely as an older person he should feel valued, important, a resource our country all too often ignores.
When you walk into our helpline base you hear the sound of laughter. There’s no “call-handling time”, we love the conversations and the memories we share. For the majority of our callers have nobody to talk to, at all, apart from us.
I spoke to Bill on Christmas Day. He told me:
‘This is the first Christmas Day for years when I have spoken to anyone. It can be a week I go without talking to anyone. It can be several weeks that I go without having a proper conversation.’
Margaret wrote to tell me how much difference The Silver Line has made to her life. She cares for her husband; ‘it’s a quiet house’. She rings the helpline when she needs to, she also has a volunteer Silver Line Friend who calls her each week, and she has joined a Silver Circle (one of our new conference calls):
‘How fascinating to listen and discuss so many topics. We oldies do still have lots to offer… yet at this stage in life it can be lonely. At times we seem to be regarded as second rate, a bit of a nuisance, yet we have all the experience of life, been useful and busy… indeed, I do hate to be patronised.’
The crime of growing old
So what have we learned over the past year? Firstly, how profound the need is, and how crucially important it is to break through the prison of silence that loneliness creates. Secondly, how proud the older generation are, and how determined ‘not to become burden’, as our callers tell us.
Solitary confinement is usually the punishment for a serious crime. But we have learned from The Silver Line that far too often it is the punishment for people like John, Bill, Ellen and Margaret, and the thousands of people who call our helpline, whose only crime is to have grown old.
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, who founded The Silver Line. All opinions expressed here are Esther’s own, not necessarily those of Which?