Part of my job is to organise the Cross Party Group for Older People, Age and Ageing (CPG) at the Scottish Parliament, and this month saw a very special one held on a topic very close to most people’s hearts. Everybody knows someone who is living alone. But what about those of us who live alone and are ageing? As friends around us start to leave this world, living alone can become more and more difficult, both mentally and physically.
For this sensitive topic, the CPG was fortunate enough to secure two fantastic speakers; Isabella Goldie, Head of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland and Esther Rantzen CBE, founder of The Silver Line.
Isabella began the meeting by setting the context of the hard-hitting impact that loneliness and isolation can have on older people.She made sure the group was clear on the stark differences between isolation and loneliness. Isolation, she said, refers to a separation from social or family contact, lack of community engagement or connection to services. Loneliness is subjective– it’s about how people feel about perceived isolation.
So how can we start to tackle this feeling of loneliness?
A few years ago, Esther Rantzen CBE, a successful broadcaster and a founder of ChildLine in 1986, had come to the realisation that despite her continuing busy lifestyle and being surrounded by family and friends, she was not only growing older, but also lonelier.
Esther explained: “I have come to the conclusion that loneliness, which absolutely is not the same as isolation, is in my view associated with loss.
“It can be loss of a partner, it can be loss of a job, it can be loss of sense, sight or hearing, it can be loss of a driving license, and it can be loss of mobility.
“But what it does, it draws in the horizons of your life and your front door becomes a barrier that becomes more and more difficult to cross because what it erodes is self-esteem and confidence.”
So what did she do? Well, being a woman of action, and with her experience of ChildLine, Esther was inspired to found The Silver Line – a helpline for older people which was initially trialled in the north of England.
On 25th November 2013, the service was launched UK-wide. In Scotland, the helpline is delivered in partnership by The Silver Line and Age Scotland as Silver Line Scotland.
It is a 24-hour, freephone helpline answered by real people – not machines – who are there to offer information, friendship and advice to older people all day, every day. Those at the meeting won’t forget the number – because Esther sang it to them – but for everyone else it’s 0800 4 70 80 90. Esther described one gentleman who, after his first call, described the feeling of ‘belonging to the human race’ again. The impact that one call a week can have on someone’s life can be that huge.
The significant and positive contribution that older people play in society is often overlooked. Esther was keen to highlight this, saying: “They are our national treasure, they are our resource – not just a series of problems. Have a look at the number of volunteers of 65-plus who keep our society going. Please do everything you can to lift the self-esteem of the older population’’ she added.
The meeting ended with a clip from Bob, a chatty 92 year old chap who was feeling desperately lonely after being widowed. He now calls The Silver Line. The video of his experience was humbling to watch and brought a tear to every eye in the room. For nothing will ever stop the pangs of heartbreak Bob experiences on a daily basis and nothing can bring back his beloved late wife Cath- but that phone call- that one, half hour phone call to a Silver Line friend, helps Bob to feel loved and wanted again.
Thanks to everyone who came along and to Moira Bayne from Housing Options Scotland who later tweeted ‘Had a great day @ScotParl listening to Esther Rantzen talk about @agescotland and Silver Line. Laughs, tears and shortbread. Perfect day’
The Silver Line Scotland is a 24 hour service providing free information, advice and friendship to older people. The number is 0800 4 70 80 90