Protecting Older People's Mental Health Matters Too

25/01/2017 17:29 GMT | Updated 26/01/2018 10:12 GMT
andriko lozowy via Getty Images

"Hello", came the quiet and shaky voice of the helpline caller, "I'm so lonely and just need to talk to someone . . . "

It was 3.30am, just as Saturday was emerging, and this lady's opening comment was typical of so many calls to The Silver Line helpline.

As we talked it became apparent that Jane* suffered from anxiety and found the night-time difficult to get through with no support or shoulder to lean on. We chatted about her hobbies, how she was learning to play a keyboard, and the responsible job she held down before retirement.

Our conversation ended with Jane feeling calmer and able to sleep again: "I'm often frightened or unwell in the night, it's always nice to know someone is there," she commented as we said goodnight.

The Silver Line is the only free, 24-hour, national helpline for lonely and isolated older people. We receive around 10,000 calls a week - and two-thirds of them are made at night times and weekends.

While we were set up to help older people combat loneliness, and offer friendship and advice, we have been getting more and more calls from over-65s who are living with some form of mental illness. That illness can range from the night-time anxiety suffered by callers like Jane, to severe depression, and even more challenging issues.

Few callers raise their mental health as an issue in the first instance. Our helpline team are trained to get behind the reason that people initially give for calling. Some may say they just "feel a bit down" but as the conversation develops it turns out that mental health is an underlying cause of their loneliness and isolation.

This is, of course, is also the stiff upper lip generation who don't have younger people's familiarity with, and openness about, mental health issues - and, even if they did, they would often be too embarrassed to admit it was a problem for them.

The increased number of these calls means we need to ensure we have the skills to respond. We have invested in extra training for our helpline team around mental health issues. We now also ensure that we have at least one person on each shift with more in-depth knowledge to advise helpline colleagues, or step in when greater levels of support are needed for a caller.

The Silver Line also works with other charities and organisations in the sector to try to signpost older people to relevant services in their local community, and encourage callers to access them.

We rely entirely on voluntary donations and over the Christmas/New Year period we were overwhelmed by calls. Even though we geared up for a peak time we were only able to answer around two-thirds - leaving over 5,000 callers unable to get the support they needed.

Now we desperately need more donations so we can recruit and train more helpline staff to cover night times, weekends and early mornings, when we get the most challenging calls.

We are working to fully understand what this development is telling us: Is it a real shift in the state of over-65s' mental health, or does it reflect a lack of support available to older people in their local communities, or both?

The fact is that a charity helpline is filling gaps in provision in local communities and increasingly hearing from older people who have been referred by helplines, healthcare professionals, and other services which all close their doors at 5.30pm.

The Prime Minister has pledged to address the level of mental health provision; while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with Prince Harry, publically supported a campaign to aid young people with mental health issues.

My concern is that older people's needs, in this case mental health, are yet again going under the radar.

  • To support The Silver Line: Text ALONE to 70555 to donate £5 or go to the website:
  • (*Not her real name)