Georgina is everything you’d want in a friend: warm, intelligent and vivacious. But a year ago she was in her own personal hell. And very, very alone.
A retired probation officer, Georgina and her husband ran a successful art gallery together. Then one day he told her he’d met someone else and, aged 68, she found herself without a husband or her job. ‘I moved away from the area I knew, leaving my friends behind. I had to start again. I had to try and heal. I’m not shy and I joined the local church, various groups and the library. Over the years I really made an effort. I tried to instigate conversations and friendships but people didn’t seem to want to know. Then I ended up in hospital with a nasty virus. I was still feeling very poorly when I came home to an empty house with no one likely to visit or call me. I felt useless to society and every ounce of confidence had been drained away.’
Tidying up her lone breakfast things one Tuesday morning, Georgina turned on the television. Esther Rantzen was talking about The Silver Line. There was a telephone number on the screen and Georgina jotted it down.
‘I thought to myself I can always hang up. A woman answered the phone. I hesitated and said “I don’t know why I’m ringing, I’m not housebound or ill…” and she just said “but you’re lonely” and I admitted the truth: “Yes, I am”.’
When Esther lost her husband, the documentary maker Desmond Wilcox, in 2000, she spoke openly of her desperate loneliness ‘with no one to share a cup of tea with, and laugh about my day’. Her honesty struck a chord and she was inundated with letters from people who’d not only lost spouses too, but those who cared for their sick partners and people who lived alone. They thanked her for being brave and for speaking out about an all-too-silent affliction. Older people come from a generation where self-pity is frowned on and being a burden is worse than suffering in silence.
But loneliness is all around us. The Department of Health calls it a ‘major health issue’ and says it is more dangerous than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, dementia, mental health issues and suicide.
Esther had seen a huge unmet need and launched The Silver Line, a confidential free helpline providing information, advice or simply a friendly person to talk to for older people. There are 175 call advisers manning the phones 24 hours a day. Since launching in November 2013 they’ve taken more than a million calls.
The Silver Line operations room is unlike any other call centre in the country. It’s the laughter you notice at first; advisers greeting familiar callers, pleased to hear them; the snippets of conversation: ‘I’ll tell you what I can do…’, ‘I hope I’ve helped’, ‘Good luck’, ‘It’s been lovely talking to you’. It’s obvious that the advisers really enjoy their jobs.
Paul is an ex-policeman and he’s used to taking the time to talk to people. ‘I like to think of myself as the friendly neighbour over the fence,’ he says, ‘A lot of the neighbourly spirit has been lost in our towns and villages. Every day when I come to work I know that I’m going to make someone’s life a little better and that gives me a great sense of satisfaction.’
Paul and his colleagues now take more than 1500 calls a day: 89% of callers live alone; 53% spend more than a day without talking to anyone; 11% often spend more than a week without talking to a single other person.
Dan, a retired director of a food company, had just taken a call from a lady who sounded suicidal; ‘She couldn’t get through to the Samaritans and was so emotional. Like so many of the people we speak to she said there was no one else she could turn to. I told her I had the time to listen to her. By the end of our conversation we were discussing the state of English cricket and she’d resumed a state of mental wellbeing. It’s very empowering to know you’ve made a difference to someone like that.’
Why are there so many lonely people in this country? Esther Rantzen believes ‘Britain has become too busy to find time for our older people. Families may live miles away and carers have no time to stop and have a conversation. So many of our callers are completely alone, they have ceased to expect that they could ever enjoy life again.’
With our older population growing every year it seems we are failing to address a very basic need: human contact. Half of people over 75 now live by themselves, the television providing 50% of them with their main source of ‘company’ each day. Even a visit to the shops can be an entirely solitary experience – automated check-outs don’t say hello or ask after your grandchildren.
Listening to stories like Georgina’s is an everyday occurrence for Anne, another call adviser: ‘It’s very humbling, a real eye opener to what is going on in the world out there. So many people feel they are worthless. When they first ring The Silver Line they are often at an all-time low.’
Older people, who in the past have been at the centre of their families and communities, often feel they’re no longer of use to anyone. But Anne points out that we have so much to learn from them; ‘Stan is one of our regular callers and he’s had an extraordinary life. I love hearing about his time in Africa and we share tales of our travels. He always says “Bless you for being there” when we say good-bye.’ Anne tells of other callers with a myriad talents that are no longer valued. ‘There’s a lady who loves to sing opera. It’s really moving to think of her sitting in her lounge and singing beautifully just for me.’
Being there, listening and chatting is fundamental to The Silver Line’s objectives. But there is a definite agenda too: empowerment. The advisers try to suggest ideas that may improve the quality of caller’s lives by referring them to other services such as Age UK and Contact The Elderly as well as local community services. The aim is to give people the confidence and information to help themselves, dealing with both big and small concerns.
Vicky, tells the tale of Lucy who rang The Silver Line when she wasn’t feeling well and was encouraged to visit her doctor. She was immediately taken to hospital where she underwent an emergency blood transfusion. ‘If it hadn’t been for our team she wouldn’t be alive today. She regards everyone here as her friends.’
Paul remembers the day when a regular caller, who had suffered from agoraphobia, rang to tell him that she’d been out to the shops for the first time in years. ‘She wanted us all to know. It was great to know we’d helped her get back her confidence.’
Reassuring practical advice is sometimes just as important. Paul had just put down the phone to a lady who was asking for help with her computer: ‘I’m an expert at being friendly but I’m certainly not an IT expert. So I signposted her to an authority that can help.’
Jane is one of The Silver Line Friends, a volunteer who makes a weekly call to someone who would benefit from regular contact from the same individual. Jane has been ringing Caroline, aged 78, for a year and says, ‘I’d never heard anyone so lonely. Caroline lost her husband the year before and she couldn’t mention his name without breaking down. Her son and daughter-in-law don’t live near her and they have busy lives and don’t visit her as often as she would have liked. We just chat about everyday things and although she might start the conversation by telling me she is a bit down, we always end up seeing the funny side. Best of all she can talk to me about her husband and the wonderful 28 years they had together. Even though we live in different parts of the country and we’ve never met she’s a part of my life now. We consider each other true friends.’
For Georgina that first call marked the start of a journey that has turned her life around. She was offered a Silver Line Friend. ‘I said I didn’t want to be a burden and that there must be other people in a far worse state than me. But having someone to talk to and listen to me every week made me feel like I was a valued person again. I can’t tell you how wonderful that was for my self-esteem. Now I’m part of a group of people who get linked up every week to talk in a Silver Line Circle. We share our concerns or simply tell silly stories about our lives. It’s just so great to have a laugh.’
The Silver Line 0800 4708090, www.thesilverline.org.uk. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Saga is proud to be supporting The Silver Line, the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people. Open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, the charity has just taken its millionth call. For information about how you can help visit saga.co.uk/silverline
Nine more signposts to help…
Age UK Advice Line: Information and advice for older people on benefits, care homes, etc.
Independent Age: Information and advice focusing on social care, welfare benefits and befriending services.
Royal Voluntary Service: Volunteers give personal and practical support to help older people stay independent at home and active in the community.
Contact The Elderly: Volunteers organise monthly Sunday tea parties for over-75s.
Cruse Bereavement: Supports people after the death of someone close.
Samaritans: 24 hour phoneline for people who need to talk to someone.
Citizens Advice Bureau: Advice on a range of issues. National advice line being rolled out across the UK – if not yet available where you live, you’ll hear recorded information.
British Red Cross: Volunteers provide support and care at home, including transport and loan of mobility aids.
Action on Elder Abuse: Information, advice and support for victims and anyone concerned about abuse.