My lifeline for the lonely: How Esther Rantzen is launching a new phoneline after being moved by Mail readers' letters
by ESTHER RANTZEN
Lifeline: Esther Rantzen today unveils The Silver Line which the lonely can ring
What does loneliness mean If you have to ask, you have never felt it, the blankness in your head, the emptiness in your heart.
The feeling that you have no real value to anyone else, that if you ceased to exist no one would miss you, and you face tomorrow without hope or anticipation as just another day to get through.
It's not the same as self-pity because most lonely people never admit the way they feel – their pride won't let them.
It's not the same as being alone because there are many people who enjoy their own company and resist invitations to be with others.
It's not the same as depression because there is a simple instant cure to loneliness – company. It is something many older people know only too well.
And perhaps I may have come up with an idea to combat it, a new telephone befriending service I am calling The Silver Line.
Loneliness particularly strikes older people who are used to having a purpose in life, to being needed.
Gradually, the community they used to belong to has shrunk away to nothing; children have moved out, bereavement or divorce means their partners have gone. After a busy family life, and perhaps an active career, being alone has come as a painful shock.
After I wrote in this paper last October about my personal experience of loneliness, among the dozens of eloquent, moving letters I received was one from Helen, who lives in Devon.
She said: 'I'm 61, and find that I have such long periods of time on my own now. I've never had a problem previously, with a family to bring up, so much to do and people to feed and constant bustle in the house.
'Now it's quiet here on my own, and my fridge has so little in it, where it was once bursting full. No one to have a laugh or talk through their problems with.
'I used to be in the hub of it all, now no one needs me any more.'
Companionship: Esther received dozens of eloquent, moving letters after writing about the issue of loneliness in the Mail last year
Some, like Ellen in Cornwall, are literally imprisoned in solitary confinement by illness or disability.
Ellen told me: 'I can't get out on my own due to health problems, so I can go as long as three days without talking to anyone.
'I am an optimist by nature, and sometimes I need that to get through another pointless day where I feel I am a waste of space.'
After my article appeared, a conference was held by the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Centre for Social Justice, specifically aimed at isolated elderly people because they are so vulnerable.
Esther today launches The Silver Line – which she has described as a ChildLine for older people
Dr James Mumford, the Senior Policy Researcher from the Centre for Social Justice, asked me to give a speech, and in it I reflected upon the fact that so many of the letters I had received described the stigma of loneliness, and praised what they described as my 'honesty' in confessing to my own.
One summed it up: 'Your piece in the Mail was brave because people don't admit to loneliness.
Loneliness has a shaming quality; it is an ache that dares not speak its name for fear that people will think us needy, and so will shun us like an empty restaurant.'
But as I stood in the conference hall, facing an audience of experts in the care of the elderly, I was hit, like a lightning bolt, by the vivid memory of another almost identical moment 25 years earlier.
It was one which changed my life. Back then I had been talking
to a di f ferent group of experts, this time in childcare, about
vulnerable children, and the fear, shame and stigma which prevented
abused children asking for help.
I had suggested that a helpline for
children might reach youngsters who dared not ask for help any other
way. As a result, we launched ChildLine. The parallels between
suffering children and isolated old people were suddenly blindingly
clear to me.
Old people, like children, can be neglected or abused by
the people nearest to them: their family, their carers, the people upon
whom they depend.
All too often the elderly, like children, are
terrified that if they ask for help, it will only make their lives even
more painful. And so, at the end of my speech, I said to the conference
delegates: 'Do you think it might be just as valuable to set up a
helpline for older people'
Yes, said the audience. As I stepped down
from the platform, they came up to me and urged me on. Especially Dr
'We must take this idea forward,' he told me. 'A helpline
would be a wonderful way of befriending the vulnerable.' I agreed. 'And
if we kept it general,' I suggested, 'like ChildLine, without a
specific agenda, older people could use it for information, for
friendship, and some might build up enough trust and confidence to ask
for help with very serious problems, like abuse.'
Companionship: In a poll a 90-year-old lady from Yorkshire who was asked how much time she spends with other people said: 'Does the TV count I see people on the TV all day'
Over Christmas, the
Centre for Social Justice had run their own poll among older people, and
James told me even their experienced pollsters were reduced to tears by
some of the stories they were told.
Like a 90-year-old lady from
Yorkshire who was asked how much time she spends with other people, and
said: 'Does the TV count I see people on the TV all day.'
88-year-old who said: 'I have no one at all. I'm on my own.' And another
in her 70s, who said: 'Some days the only person I speak to is the boy
in the shop when I pick up my paper.'
So we decided that our next step
should be a meeting, to discuss the setting up of a ChildLine for older
It was held, at the invitation of the Minister for Care
Services, Paul Burstow, in the Department of Health.
The three of us –
James from the CSJ, Laura Ferguson (Director of the Campaign to End
Loneliness) and I – put together a guest list of experts in befriending
and the care of the elderly. And they came. It was inspiring to hear how
positive they all were.
Demand: Esther Rantzen writes that she has been told there will be huge interest in a helpline for older people
As Joe Ferns from The Samaritans told us: 'We
often get calls from older people very late at night, and all they
really want is to have someone to say goodnight to.'
I suggested the new
helpline should be called The Silver Line – a positive title, not
ageist in any way, not prescriptive.
Its help would have no age limits:
if you think you belong to the Silver generation, then you do. Older
people could ring for information, for friendship, for help with health
worries or for financial guidance. And we could signpost them to other
organisations because there is a tremendous amount of help available.
It's just that people don't know where to find it. So The Silver Line
could direct older people to specific, practical help. But how could it
tackle that emotional demolition ball, profound loneliness
86, from South London, told me her l i fe had been transformed by a
Five years ago, her closest friend had died, leaving
her bereft. 'I just didn't want to live. I didn't care if I went out, I
didn't even have enough interest to read a book. When I went to bed at
night, I'd think: “What have I got to get up for in the morning”
Nothing. I've got no family, no one at all.
'But then a friend told me
to get in touch with the charity Contact The Elderly. They take you out
one Sunday a month for tea. Believe me, I've never regretted it. It's
brought me out of myself. I've got real friends now. If you're old and
lonely, this can change your life.'
But you need to know there are
people out there to help you and how to contact them.
The Silver Line's
job will be to make sure the Mauds who ring us will be told of
organisations such as Contact the Elderly, with their 5,000 volunteers,
or the WRVS, or the Townswomen's Guilds.
Because it's not that
organisations don't exist – it's just that we need a way of bridging the
gaps, of befriending, and sign-posting.
Experts from ChildLine have
given us advice on training volunteers in empathetic listening, giving
callers time to express their feelings, and told us how to actually get
the helpline up and running.
And although setting up The Silver Line may
sound impossibly ambitious in these tough times, I have discovered that
there is a model to copy.
Denise Murphy of Grandparents Plus, which
champions grandparents who help to care for their younger families, told
us about The Senior Helpline in Ireland, created by a wonderful woman
called Mary Nally.
So I'm off to Dublin this week to learn a few
lessons. I know there will be challenges ahead. Some, from my ChildLine
experience, I can anticipate, but I'm going to need all the help I can
Thankfully I've already had offers of sponsorship from several
large companies, but the public will need to help, too. Just like
ChildLine, The Silver Line will be a charity that relies on fundraising
and people's generosity to keep going.
As soon as we're up and running
(we hope the phone lines will be open by Christmas) I'll let you know
how you, too, can help us.
The demand will be huge. According to Dr
Ishani Kar-Purkayastha, who wrote a recent article on loneliness in The
Lancet medical journal: 'There are probably thousands of men and women
who have lived a lot and loved a lot.
'Men and women who are not yet
done with being ferocious and bright, but for whom time now stands empty
as they wait in homes full of silence.'
So, I hope and believe that The
Silver Line could become a lifeline to all those older people who have
contributed so much throughout their lives but now feel so isolated and alone.