Imagine a life where a visit from the postman might be the only human contact you have all week. For those of us who work in a busy office this is hard to imagine, but for many older people, it's a grim reality.
Loneliness is a devastating problem in the UK and has a crippling effect on older people who endure it, day in and day out. When I founded Contact the Elderly nearly 50 years ago, I wanted to make a difference for isolated older people living within four bare walls with only a radio for company. Since then we have provided over a million life-enhancing friendship links with the support of thousands of volunteers but the problem has increased, and much more needs to be done.
The news from health secretary Jeremy Hunt MP that as many as 800,000 people are chronically lonely in the UK has acted to highlight the issue to a wider audience, on which I commented recently. Another big news story to draw attention to this problem is the launch of Silver Line.
Esther Rantzen's Silver Line will play a key role in helping older people feel that they are not alone via its telephone befriending service. It is also providing links to face-to-face events and groups for isolated people to get involved in. Due to the nature of their isolation, many lonely older people are very difficult to reach despite their need for companionship, so this service is making a big difference these people.
In a nation of millions, loneliness doesn't need to exist, but while it does, we need to act. Whether volunteering, fundraising or just stopping to talk to an older neighbour, everyone can make a difference. The effect of regular meetings in the warmth of a home rather than an institution is immense and can be summed up in the words of one older guest who told me: "At last I have something to live for".
Spending time with these older, isolated people is also extremely beneficial to the volunteers, who make new and enduring friendships. Volunteers find that giving a short time each month or even once a year is both rewarding and enjoyable. Having volunteers who have been with Contact the Elderly for 20, 30 or even 40 years shows this to be true.
Esther has spoken candidly about her own experience of becoming widowed and the loneliness that this brought with it. Unfortunately, we hear this all too frequently and I hope that this publicity will encourage those older people who need support to take the step and ask for a lifeline. I also hope it will encourage many more volunteers to come forward.
While Silver Line will offer a tremendous service we cannot pat ourselves on the back and believe that this is the problem solved. So why not join the doers and get involved with a charity that is helping isolated older people at the grassroots. I promise you that this small commitment can transform your lives as well as theirs.