'Nobody to do nothing with.' Combating loneliness

Featured article - 24 January 2018
By Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, Founder of Silver Line and Broadcaster

Head-shot of the author, Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, Founder of Silver Line and Broadcaster

When I first wrote about my feelings of loneliness six years ago, living alone for the first time at age 71 and hating it, one of my closest friends said to me: 'How can you write like that, Esther, haven’t you got too much pride?'. He too lives alone, but tells me that he prefers it. He thinks of himself as self-sufficient, and proudly independent.

But I wonder if my friend was being honest with himself, and me. There is a real stigma about admitting to loneliness. You dread people thinking that you crave company but nobody wants to know you, that you are inadequate, and above all, that if you do admit to feeling lonely that you will be a burden to your friends and family.

Spending time on my own

Well, I haven’t got too much pride to admit that there are times when I still feel lonely. I am lucky, as many readers of my original article told me, because I have sufficient health and strength to lead a busy life. But one definition of loneliness is to have plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with. And it’s those moments when I spend evenings on my own, or venture off on holiday by myself, that I most miss what I had, the loving company of my late husband, Desmond Wilcox.

What I have learned from callers to The Silver Line, the helpline I set up which launched nationally four years ago, and is about to take its two millionth call, is that loneliness is often created by loss. It may be the loss of a partner, of mobility, of a driving licence, of sight or hearing; whatever the loss, a crucial piece of scaffolding has been knocked away which has kept your life, your happiness together. And the result can be a loss of confidence, a deterioration in physical and mental health, serious damage which can lead to premature death.

The loneliness vacuum

At The Silver Line, we know we are speaking to some of the loneliest older people, many of them isolated by disability. We offer callers our free helpline 24/7, we use volunteers as Silver Line Friends who make regular weekly friendship calls, we run Silver Circle conference calls, and staff and volunteers problem-solve to forge links with projects in the community. But it’s not enough. Everyone in the sector needs to work together to fill the loneliness vacuum in the lives of millions of older people. We may not totally succeed. Nothing will replace for me the company of my late husband. But we can make life worth living.

At Christmas I spoke to a Silver Line caller to ask how she was feeling and she told me she was just waiting to die. I believe she was waiting to be given a reason to live. And that’s the task we face: given we now have a new Minister to bring us together, we must all work to combat loneliness. It might be a daunting challenge, but it’s so worthwhile.

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