A letter from Dame Esther Rantzen DBE — The Silver Line Helpline founder and president
I first admitted I was lonely in 2011 when I found myself living alone for the first time aged 71, and hating it.
I knew I was lucky in many ways. I was busy, I was healthy, but all the same at the end of the day I would return to my empty flat. It was dark, it was cold, there was nobody to have a cup of tea with, or plan an evening of television together.
As journalist Felicity Green said, “I have plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with.” So I stopped cooking, I stopped taking exercise, I fell asleep on the sofa and lived on bread and cheese.
No wonder health experts say loneliness is so bad for our mental and physical health.
Telling my own story of loneliness
Some of the letters I received in response were so moving, so courageous that I have treasured them ever since.
Bob Lowe wrote to tell me that his beloved wife Kath had died two years previously from Alzheimer’s.
“After 65 years of marriage, but more to the point, 72 years since we first kissed. And she waited for me throughout the war and I for her. Loneliness, tell me about it.”
Another person who got in touch with me was Ellen. She wrote that she, too, had lost her husband of 54 years, and since then she sometimes goes for 3 days at a time without talking to anyone.
“I am an optimist by nature and sometimes I need that to get through another pointless day when I feel as if I am a waste of space.”
But the last thing she wanted to be, she told me, was a “burden”.
But there were many other letters from organisations like Contact the Elderly alongside churches, mosques, and synagogues. They told me they were desperate to reach out to the isolated, older people, if only they could find them.
Imagining a helpline for older people
As a result of my articles, I was invited to join a panel at a conference organised by the Campaign to End Loneliness, attended by experts supporting older people. It was a light-bulb moment. I heard myself saying to the audience:
“I’m getting a flashback to another meeting twenty-five years ago. Then, I was talking to experts in child protection, now it’s experts in looking after older people. Then, I was discussing the stigma of abuse, now it’s the stigma of loneliness. Then, it was happening to children, now it’s older people. Then, the answer was a helpline, Childline. Could it be that an answer might be another helpline?”
Yes, said the audience. Make it happen.
I did my best. I spent a year fact-finding, visiting dozens to organisations and picking their brains, including Age UK, the RVS, Samaritans, and Independent Age. I spoke to charities up and down the country who were running helplines for older people.
The Minister for Care Services gave me a donation to hire our first CEO, Sophie Andrews OBE, who had headed the NSPCC volunteers and Chaired Samaritans. Comic Relief gave us the funding we needed to pay for a pilot and its evaluation by Dr Samantha Callan.
We were absolutely thrilled when, on the strength of that evaluation, The Big Lottery Fund gave us funding for five years. It meant that on November 25 2013, we were able to launch nationally.
Research into how loneliness was affecting older people
To coincide with that launch, we commissioned market research consultancy Savanta ComRes to conduct a survey into loneliness affecting older people. In 2013, they found:
- 15% - 2.5 million older people said they often feel lonely.
- 87% said that a chat on the phone was the most helpful way of alleviating loneliness (83% said a chat over a meal; 68% said exercise is what helps them most).
- But 25% say they never, or not very often have a chat with anyone on the phone.
- 34% say they never, or not very often meet up for an outing with friends or family.
- 84% say it is difficult for older people to say they feel lonely because they don’t want to be a burden.
That “B” word again, “burden”. Along with “busy” (as in “my family is so busy”, “my neighbours are so busy”, and “the shop assistants are so busy”) are the words we hear most often from our callers to The Silver Line Helpline.
As of 2022, The Silver Line has been open now for nine years and are now merged with Age UK. Together, we provide older people with The Silver Line Helpline, telephone friendship services, an advocacy service, and group calls.
What do our callers say about The Silver Line Helpline?
So, what do the most important people, our callers, think of us? When we evaluated our service, these were some of the responses we received:
What support and/or help have The Silver Line provided for you?
- “You have provided a non-judgemental ear when I was in despair. You have also provided me with a lovely Silver Line Friend – a thousand thank yous!”
- “Friendship. Safe place to share life events. Chance to consider different perspective. Comfort, kindness, NON-judgemental. Feel someone always there day or night.”
What difference has using The Silver Line made to you?
- “I feel wanted.”
- “If I hadn’t got in touch, I would not have gained a friend.”
- “Without it I have nowhere else to go! And no one else to talk to, because I do not want to trouble my daughters.”
- “I love Sundays and look forward to them whereas I found them so long and lonely as I don’t see anyone. Now that’s all changed thanks to Silver Line and my new friend.”
- “Knowing that there is someone I can phone if I am at a low point has helped me. I hate having to phone my daughter for everything, so won’t bother her if I am very low. Knowing I can phone Silver Line helps.”
- “I am more content with myself. Thank you.”
Did the service meet your expectations?
- “Yes, more than you will ever know but I really don’t know what to say. Thanks to everyone at Silver Line, please keep up the good work. Just to know that there is always your number if I ever needed to make that call, I can. Thank you all.”
- “They are always there for me. They took an interest in me and tried to help me. Kind words mean a lot.”
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your Silver Line experience?
- “I’ve never come off the phone without an improvement in my morale.”
- “They either really listen and on the other scale, I can have a little laughter. I have never experienced a bad call. Hats off to all you, staff and volunteers. Thank you.”
- “Providing a service at night and weekends is so important as these are the times you can feel very alone when other services are closed. It is good to know someone is always there to talk to, even if you don’t need it, like a comfort blanket. Thank you.”
- “It is not good to know others (many) feel lonely, but it is good to know that we are recognised and that Silver Line has become a national symbol of care. Silver Line – you are SAVING MY LIFE.”
They either really listen and on the other scale, I can have a little laughter. I have never experienced a bad call. Hats off to all you, staff and volunteers. Thank you.
Overcoming the taboo of loneliness
If you, or someone you know, suffers pangs of loneliness, do contact The Silver Line Helpline on 0800 4 70 80 90.
We understand that it can be very difficult to ask for help, or even just for a chat, because loneliness still carries a stigma. For years, loneliness was never discussed. It became a taboo subject as Holly Martyn, the author, once declared: “Forget sex or politics or religion: loneliness is the subject that clears out a room.”
A friend once told me: “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.”
We can’t claim to change people’s lives completely, but we do know – because our callers tell us – that making that phone call can lift callers’ spirits, make them feel valued, and that life really is worth living. As one of our Silver Line callers, Beryl told me:
“I wondered what would happen if I rang. What did happen was I found myself pouring out my deepest feelings to a lovely lady, and that night, for the first time since John died, I had a good night’s sleep. He would thank The Silver Line. I do, too.”
As the Founder and President of The Silver Line, it matters hugely to me that we offer the best possible service; one that our callers want and need. If you have any comments, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me via my website.
Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, founder and president of The Silver Line Helpline.
Age UK’s Silver Line Helpline is the UK's only free, confidential, 24-hour helpline providing friendship for older people.