MOTHER Teresa said “the most terrible poverty is loneliness”. And that is why I find the conversations I have had for the past five Christmases with callers to The Silver Line so desperately sad.
Compared with the deprivation we see nightly on our screens from refugee camps around the world, the older people I speak to are well-off, materially.
They have shelter, they have a telephone and a television, they aren’t threatened with starvation, but all the same they are suffering from the most terrible poverty – loneliness.
For the last five years, I have spoken to around 30 people who have rung The Silver Line helpline because they have literally nobody else to turn to, and who asked for somebody to ring them over the Christmas period when the world shuts down.
It is one of our helpline’s busiest times. As one gentleman told me on the afternoon of Christmas Day: “To be 100 per cent honest, Esther, you are the first person I’ve spoken to all day.”
And when I rang back in the New Year, he told me I was again the only person he had heard from.
This year I spoke to some who live in sheltered housing, where you might think they have company, but they explained that, at this time of year so many of the staff and other residents leave to join their families that they are lonelier than at any other time.
Invariably, when I speak to them, they tell me of the painful contrast between their memories and the harsh reality of their present life.
What can you say to someone who describes Christmas as “just another day to get through?”
So I treasure the letter I received from Vera, who tells me that her Christmas “home alone” has been transformed by the knowledge that the “lovely people” she speaks to on our helpline have transformed her life.
Because now, once again, she feels that someone cares about her.
I woke up to the prevalence and seriousness of our loneliness epidemic when I wrote about my own feeling of loneliness seven years ago, living alone for the first time in 71 years.
In response, Ellen wrote to me. She told me a little about her life, that her husband had died from cancer, so had her son, her daughter lives quite close to her and visits her when she can “but she is busy with a family of her own”.
Ellen is disabled, so she cannot get out and about, and she said: “I am an optimist by nature, and often I have to be, as I face another pointless day when I’m a waste of space.”
Bob wrote to me to say his beloved wife, Kath, had died of Alzheimer’s “65 years after we got married, and, 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”.
Ellen and Bob’s letters go with me whenever I am talking about The Silver Line’s work, as inspiration.
They are so typical of their generation, both used to being needed, to being carers, to being relied upon, so that now that they are bereft of company they feel they have no value.
And yet these are bright, eloquent people with a wealth of life experience to share, if only we would listen and make time for them. When we launched our helpline for older people, one of our callers told us: “When I get off the phone I feel like I’ve joined the human race.” Loneliness deprived him even of that basic right, to consider himself a valid member of humanity.
In the last five years the helpline has received more than two million calls, most of them in the evenings, overnight and during weekends when all the other services are shut.
Now we are receiving around 10,500 calls every week. From them I have learned to hate two B words. No, not Brexit, but Burden, and Busy. Burden because that is what our callers say they are determined never to become. Busy, because they say their families are too busy, their neighbours are too busy, check-out assistants are too busy, the whole world is too busy to listen, share memories, or a enjoy a joke.
But the busy world is missing so much. Older people have so much to offer, if we let them. Our helpline is based in Blackpool, and if you visit, the sound you hear is laughter.
Laughter is not a luxury, they say it’s the best medicine, and I believe it prolongs life. Certainly the depression caused by loneliness shortens it. So if I were Prime Minister (not a job anyone would relish at this moment) I would make a law that everyone should have fun at least once a day.
But having fun is, in my experience, only possible if you can share it with someone. To create relationships for those who have none, we have trained more than four thousand befrienders, our Silver Line Friends, who make regular calls to older people who literally have nobody else to have a conversation with.
Even though they never meet, perhaps because they know they can tell each other anything, this friendship is not only liberating, it gives a point to their week, the reassurance that they are valued. Because that is the most destructive effect of loneliness, the total loss of self-worth.
I wish over the past five years I had discovered one silver bullet that would kill or cure loneliness. But I now know that it takes more than a single organisation, or the chance to have one conversation in a sleepless night, or an isolated week.
It will take all of us working together, in charities, in neighbourhoods, in the media, and in families to encourage isolated people of every age to feel they are valued members of the human race, that their days still have point and purpose, and above all, that life can still be fun.
We have to tackle this epidemic together, if we want to claim that we value our older people as they deserve, and have recognised and eliminated the most terrible poverty of all – loneliness.
Dame Esther Rantzen is a TV personality and founder of The Silver Line. It can be called on 0800 4708090.