When was the last time you called or spent some time with an elderly relative or friend? The very real physical and mental health risks posed by loneliness amongst isolated older people have been highlighted this month by a new report from The Centre for Social Justice.
The report is an evaluation of a pilot scheme in the UK called The Silver Line, a 24/7 hotline for older people (slogan: “No question too big, no problem too small, no need to be alone”). The Silver Line was started by Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine in the UK, because of the needs she saw in her peers who experienced isolation, loneliness and depression in their older years. One letter she received said:
“I can’t get out on my own due to health problems, so it can be as much as three days I go without talking to anyone … I dread the winter nights when everything seems to close in around me and I feel so isolated. I am an optimist by nature and sometimes I need that to get through another pointless day where I feel as if I am a waste of space.”
The CSJ found in their research that the simple act of picking up the phone and calling an isolated senior citizen once a week can have a huge impact.
The Silver Line acts as a hub to firstly connect elderly callers with someone who can listen and talk whatever the time of day, and provide links to immediate care and solutions to pressing issues through a wide network of existing community organisations. They then assign a Silver Line Friend who will call once a week to have a chat, and ideally be able to connect each caller to local communities who can provide ongoing friendship.
Most of the older callers who access The Silver Line service do so because they have either lost connection with sources of family or community help (through the loss of a spouse, financial hardship, poor health, “ageist attitudes,” or family breakdown), or sadly, they simply do not wish to “make a fuss” or “be a burden” on their children and extended family.
The statistics make for grim reading:
“A survey by the Campaign to End Loneliness found that 42 per cent of older people reported that if they need help, they do not know where to turn.”
“It has been estimated that more than a million people aged 65 and over feel lonely often or always and a similar number feel trapped in their homes.”
“More than half of people aged 75-years-old and over live alone and nearly a fifth of those spend zero hours with other people on a typical day.”
“Television is the main form of company for half of all older people.”
“In 2011, 246,000 older people spent Christmas Day alone – a number equivalent to the population of Brighton.”
“[T]he Mental Health Foundation reports that two in five older people living in care homes are depressed.”
“Loneliness can cause serious damage, physically and mentally, as dangerous as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and more dangerous than obesity.”
During the course of their evaluation of The Silver Line, the CSJ found that the weekly phone call from a Silver Line Friend who takes an ongoing interest in their life can bring about change in perspective and a marked improvement in outlook for those accessing the service.
“Many older people are benefiting in clear and significant ways – such as feeling more able to cope, more connected to other people, uplifted and in better mental health – from having regular calls from a Silver Line Friend and being able to chat at length, whenever they want to advisers on the helpline.”
The Silver Line is a fantastic service, and there are others like it in New Zealand, but the need for these services only arises because our older community members lose touch with their families and communities. The release of this report so close to Christmas is a great reminder to keep the older people in our community in mind, and to make a point of remembering them this season, through visits, phone calls and activities that bring us together.