Nobody prepares you for the loneliness of old age. I rang John over Christmas. Aged 79, he had contacted our new befriending helpline, The Silver Line, and mentioned that he would welcome a call over Christmas Day. When I rang on the day itself, I asked him "How's it been so far?". "To be 100% honest," he said, "You are the first person I have spoken to all day." And when I rang to check a few days later he told me that I was the only person he spoke to on Christmas Day. Me, a stranger, on a helpline.
Every new milestone in life is shocking - going to school, plunging into puberty, gently declining into middle age, who knew what that would feel like, until it happened? So as each new stage hits you, you keep calm, or as calm as you can, and you carry on. And then old age strikes. You may have spent a busy, active career being consulted and relied upon, perhaps you were surrounded by a vibrant, noisy family and you were the central hub, and then you wake up one morning to find that nobody really needs you any more. You've retired, your children have grown up and moved away. Perhaps you have lost your partner, been bereaved or divorced. The change can be swift, and devastating.
Loneliness saps the will to live and can be a major cause of depression, as one 80-year-old lady told me "I wake each morning, get dressed, and sit on my bed waiting for death. I have nothing else to look forward to."
But loneliness does not only cause mental harm, it can cause physical damage too - it has been proved to injure health as badly as obesity, or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. It's easy to see why. Loneliness can lead to poor nutrition, "why bother to cook for myself?" and lack of exercise, "It's no fun going for a walk alone."
There is a stigma attached to loneliness. I know, because when I wrote about my own feelings when at the age of 71 I moved into a flat, living alone for the first time, many people told me that "I was brave to be so honest."
ChildLine, (the children's helpline I launched 26 years ago) has proved, as Samaritans proved before it, that an anonymous helpline can break through the barriers of shame or fear. So I suggested that The Silver Line might do the same for the older generation, and enable callers to disclose not just their loneliness, but incidents of neglect and abuse they dared not admit to anyone else. And so it has proved.
Dora was one of the very first callers to The Silver Line Helpline, (which opened last December, piloting in the North of England), expressed her own shock when she found she had become someone she couldn't recognize. "I'm used to being such a chirpy person," Dora told us, "But now I'm completely on my own now since my husband died. My family have lives of their own and I don't want to bother them. So I only have my little dog for company. And I hate hearing myself telling him that I feel really down. Very, very down. And that's really not me."
When they signed off, Simon asked, "Would you have been able to tell anyone else how down you sometimes feel?" Dora thought for a moment. "No, I couldn't. I think I'm too proud."
They are a proud generation, having survived tough times, they are used to being self-reliant. Nearly all our callers tell us, "I know there are people far worse off than I am." And a lady who rang us at three in the morning, desperate to talk about the strain she feels as she cares for her husband who has Alzheimer's, told us "I didn't ring the Samaritans, because I'm not bad enough."
There are many organizations in the community, like the Samaritans, AgeUK, and Independent Age, who would love to offer support to isolated older people. The problem is that hard-to-reach people are so hard to reach. One elderly man, disabled and never leaving his own home, called his life "solitary confinement." All he wanted, he said, was a cup of tea and a laugh with a friend. We discovered that there are volunteer drivers working for charities like Contact the Elderly or the WRVS, why hadn't he contacted them, so they could take him out to a lunch club, or the local pub? He took some encouraging. Loneliness erodes confidence. Many of us find it harder and harder to cross our own thresholds as we grow older. So we retreat indoors.
Disabilities like arthritis or deafness conspire to turn a home into a prison. Add to all these ingredients the ageism that besets our society, so that grey hair becomes a cloak of invisibility, and no wonder all the charities and statutory agencies who work with older people confess they know there is a huge unmet demand for their services.
We hope that The Silver Line will be able to act as a signpost, to link people back into their communities. After all, older people are such a valuable resource, we need them to play their part. How bad does an older person have to feel to ring us? How old do you have to be? We do not lay down any other criteria, such as age, or desperation. We deliberately keep the agenda wide, offering any kind of advice or information, because callers who are facing the most painful issues, being abused or neglected, often prefer to start their conversation somewhere easier, by asking a simple question. And because we know lying alone and sleepless in the middle of the night can make loneliness really hard to bear, we are open twenty four hours a day.
So where does The Silver Line go from here? Although our number may change when we launch nationally later this year, (at the moment it is 0800 328 8888 open to anyone living in the North of England) we will remain a free phone number, open 24/7, using trained volunteers as our Silver Line befrienders. We will launch our full national service next November, so that once again we can be there over Christmas. Recently I received an email from Pat, who receives regular phone calls from one of our Silver Line Friends, and wrote to thank her, as she said "the pleasure brought to people who are so much in need of company, be it at the end of a telephone, is priceless... lifting my spirits when the weather is cold, pouring with rain, blowing a gale, and I'm tied to my home with only my four walls and a tv for company, opening the door on a country wide problem, and helping to connect people in a very human way."
Esther Rantzen will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org