The Silver Line: '˜It's lovely to know that you can help break the silence'
Isolated, lonely or just wanting to hear another voice, elderly people across the country are using The Silver Line as more than a national helpline '“ it's a lifeline. As demand grows for the charity, Claire Lark speaks to those on the other end of the phone.
When Joanne Higgins began working for national helpline The Silver Line, little did she know the extent of loneliness among elderly people in our country.
Acting as a round-the-clock lifeline for the older generation, the charity, basedat Lancaster House in Blackpool Business Park, has seen a significant surge in calls so far this year.
Joanne, who has been working as a helpline advisor for nine months, said: “When I started working at The Silver Line, I really didn’t understand the major need for this service.
“My first shift in was a complete eye opener as to the loneliness and struggles of everyday life for the elderly in our country.
“It’s a very rewarding job but can also be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. One call can have you laughing and then the next you can have tears in your eyes.
“It’s lovely when you can walk out of the door at the end of a shift and know that for a short while you have helped break the silence for someone and perhaps cheered them up.”
March was The Silver Line’s busiest month ever with call numbers up by 24 percent in comparison to the same month last year.
Callers are mainly people looking for sanctuary, reaching out to hear another human voice in times of crisis, sheer loneliness and sometimes desperation. But there are also people who are struggling with other issues and need practical help.
The charity handles on average 45,000 calls a month, which has doubled since its national launch in 2013. And the helpline experienced its busiest day ever on March 2 when the Beast from the East struck, leaving many people isolated.
The free helpline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 68 per cent of the calls coming in during evenings and weekends.
Demand is so high, the charity is currently recruiting more advisors and searching for extra volunteers.
Head of helpline Alan Walsh said: “Advisors have to be resilient and adaptable to deal with a huge range of subject matter. People call in a myriad of emotional states, and can be confused and agitated. It’s important that the call handler can engage fully in the conversation, give verbal nods, care and empathy.
“While many of our calls are from people who are struggling, we do get lots of upbeat calls from people who simply want to chat.
“I’ve engaged in conversations about all sorts, from genetic engineering to nuclear physics! There are boundaries of course, but we can share information.”
Aside from the helpline there are 4,000 volunteers nationwide who work with The Silver Line’s other services: Silver Line Letters, Silver Circle, Silver Friends and Silver Connects.
Silver Line Letters puts volunteers in touch with people by letter, like a penpal, while Silver Circle is a conference type call of six to eight people who talk about mutual interests or hobbies.
And Silver Friends connects volunteers with people in the community where they can engage in regular telephone calls to build up a friendship.
But it’s Silver Connects where extra volunteers are really needed.
It’s the more involved aspect of the organisation which goes beyond advisory to a more pro-active method, tackling broader issues and offering practical help. There are just a couple of volunteers on board at the moment, but the charity needs around 20 to tackle the workload.
Kenny Dale, 56, who oversees Silver Connects, is passionate about his role.
He said: “Silver Connects deals with more in-depth cases.
“The helpline can signpost people to the right help but Silver Connects is more of an advocacy role and will take on cases to solve.
“It could be anything from housing problems to issues with Social Services or other agencies that some people find overwhelming.
“We can do the groundwork and pinpoint what’s needed.
“Sometimes the issues are really simple to solve and, to you or I, it’s an easy thing to do.
“But for some people it’s a huge undertaking, they lack confidence to deal with it, they don’t know where to start and that is where we come in.
“I think I have the best job in the helpline room, we help the most vulnerable who really appreciate it, it’s extremely rewarding.
“The volunteers have their own case work and can manage their own time.
“They build relationships with the people they are helping and find instant gratification.”
Silver Line founder, Dame Esther Rantzen, wrote a newspaper article in 2011 about her feelings of loneliness since being bereaved and living alone for the first time.
The overwhelming number of letters she received from the ‘stiff upper lip’ generation in response – many saying they shared her experience but felt unable to tell anyone – inspired her idea of creating a ‘ChildLine for older people’.
She said: “Eighty per cent of our callers in March were reaching out to us for the first time, so I am delighted that more and more older people now know about The Silver Line, that we are free, confidential, and that they can ring us any time of day or night.
“But I am of course very sad that so many thousands are so isolated and alone that they have nobody else to speak to except us, and no-one to share with them their memories
“I hope that all those with older relatives, friends, or service users remember our number, 0800 4 70 80 90.”
A proud war hero in need of help
James lives alone now as his wife of 71 years has dementia and lives in a care home.
James was finding this situation difficult to deal with and felt very low.
He had served in the Second World War in the Royal Marines and was stationed in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Australia, which is where he met his wife who was a nurse in the Royal Navy.
When they met, they discovered that they came from a few streets away from each other. James now lives in a rural area and is very isolated; he is estranged from the rest of his family.
At the age of 92, James has limited mobility but can still get out by himself with the help of the local community transport service. James visits his wife every day of the week and usually gets home from his visit at around 4pm. During a wellbeing call from the Silver Line, James requested help finding a face-to-face befriender in his area.
Although he goes out every day to see his wife, his wife’s condition distresses him and he often gets very upset and has no one to talk to when he gets home nor does he get visitors to check to see how he is coping. Silver Connects, with James’s permission, made a referral to a local home visiting service. The representative of the home visiting scheme arranged to visit James and spent two hours with him.
After hearing his story, she referred him to a local emotional support group and found a volunteer from their service to visit him regularly.
No more open doors
Raymond is an 85-year-old man who told his Silver Line Friend that he was considering shoplifting from his local supermarket because he felt so lonely and wanted someone to have a conversation with him.
He also reported that he often left his front door open so that passers-by would talk to him; this obviously left Raymond in a very vulnerable position.
Silver Connects was able to find Raymond many local activities and groups to connect with. Raymond joined a Men in Sheds project, as well as a cycling group for older men, and a local walking group.
Raymond reported back that he feels so much better now that he has people to speak to regularly and he has stopped leaving his front door open.
Raising alarm at state of care home
Anne is in her late 80s. Due to a broken foot she was taken into a nursing home for four weeks.
She was unable to take her befriending calls while she was in the home and when she was discharged, the Silver Line contacted Anne to check how she was and to get the befriending calls set up again.
Anne told the friendship manager about her bad experience in the home. Alarmed at what Anne told her, the friendship manager referred her to Silver Connects. Listening to a catalogue of incidents, and with Anne’s approval, Silver Connects reported Anne’s concerns to the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
The inspector of the region where the care home and Anne lives called back also expressing their alarm about Anne’s experience in the care home.
The inspector has since reported the incident to the local authorities as a safeguarding incident.
• The Silver Line helpine number: 0800 70 80 90 - the only national, free and confidential phone line dedicated to older people, 24 hours a day, seven days a week
• Call numbers 2014: 293,000
• Call numbers 2017: 492,524
• More than 1.8m calls in total to date
• March 2018: Busiest month with 48,070 calls
• March 2 2018: Busiest day with 1,859 calls received in 24 hours - and almost 5,500 calls between March 1 and 3 due to adverse weather
• Callers living alone: 90 per cent
• Isolated / lonely: 70 per cent
• And 50 per cent have no-one else to talk to