After pouring her heart out to the nation about how desperately lonely she felt, Esther Rantzen seriously wondered if she’d done the right thing. “A very close friend said to me: ‘How can you write that? Haven’t you got too much pride?’ and I did think, have I made a fool of myself?” she admits.
The former That’s Life! presenter wasn’t new to widowhood when she wrote about how she felt in a national newspaper in 2011. Her beloved husband Desmond Wilcox had died more than a decade earlier, leaving her with three grown-up children. She had a busy life and plenty of friends. Although she didn’t know it then, she’d soon have a grandson, Benjamin. Yet despite it all, she still felt lonely.
“Some people define loneliness as having plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with,” she says.
“I know a lot of older people with busy lives who come home at the end of the day to an empty home with nobody to watch TV with or to make them a cup of tea.”
It’s not in the middle of the night when Esther wakes up alone and switches on the radio that she feels most lonely, though.
“For me, it’s when I am somewhere really lovely I know Desi would have adored to be. He was very fond of boats so if I’m standing on a marina I feel lonely. This year I am going on holiday by myself to Canada, which is going to be tough. I think you adapt your life a little bit, but widowhood doesn’t get easier.”
‘Some people define loneliness as having plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with’
Esther sums up loneliness as being all about loss – of a partner, mobility, sight, hearing, a driving licence, friends or a job.
“Suddenly you lose your sense of self worth. You think the front door becomes a brick wall that you hesitate to go through because you think nobody wants to hear what you have to say.” But as her friend’s comment highlighted, there’s often a stigma attached to admitting it.
Happily, any embarrassment she felt about her public statement was short lived. Soon she was inundated with poignant letters from elderly people who understood how she felt.
“Some said they’d no incentive to get out of the house; one said it was like solitary confinement. I became aware this was a big, big problem. More than half of people over 75 live on their own. There are a lot of us.”
Using her experience from setting up Childline, Esther launched The Silver Line last November – a free 24-hour charity helpline for older people. Since then, more than 100,000 callers have contacted them to chat to trained volunteers. Some are partnered up to receive weekly calls.
Speaking to Yours at the Consultus Care awards, Esther welcomed the independent care provider’s pledge to volunteer staff to enrol as Silver Line Friends.
“We need to link people back. A phone line can break through the loss of self-esteem. Somebody said, ‘when I get off the phone I feel I’ve joined the human race’. It restores that crucial communication and makes you feel valued,” she adds.
Confessing to spending hours on her own phone, she says she and Desmond called each other six times a day. “We encourage people to go on the internet and Skype, but I still think the phone’s more effective. It’s heart to heart. We’re not a generation more at ease with a screen than with people. I don’t bother with Facebook.”
Silver Line friends don’t need any special qualities, she insists. They just need to be quite sensitive and enjoy talking to and enjoy listening to other people. “It’s not professional counselling; it’s a friendly phone call, but both people need to share experiences. It’s confidential but not anonymous.”
Esther hopes that like Childline, The Silver Line will become a global service and has already had requests from other countries. What keeps her going, at 74? “It’s the knowledge you can improve things. Things can get better for people,” she says.
Image © Featureflash
‘I wanted to give something back’
Linda Southern (53), left, became a Silver Line friend 18 months ago and looks forward to her weekly chats with widower Joseph Day (79), as much as he does.
A school business manager and divorced mum of two, she says: “ I heard Esther on TV and wanted to help. I have a strong Christian faith and I’d been thinking about giving something back – we should all look after each other and this is something I can do from my own home that isn’t too onerous.
“I’m a real Essex girl and Joseph’s a true Yorkshireman but from the start there were never any awkward silences. We talk about everything. He’s explained cricket and snooker to me and I know all about his hero Ronnie O’Sullivan. He’s learned about my own hero Gary Barlow, though he was shocked when I told him I’d paid nearly £200 to see him in concert earlier this year!”
“I call him every Thursday and we chat for up to 45 minutes. The time goes by really quickly. I come off the phone feeling happy not just that I’ve done a bit of good but because I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Joseph’s become a real friend and I definitely get back more than I give.”
Joseph says: “I lost my wife three years ago and I do miss her. She wasn’t just my wife; she was my life. Without her they are long, lonely days and it’s getting harder. I can’t get out much because my eyesight’s so bad. Linda and I are poles apart but I have a good laugh with her once a week and it really cheers me up.”
- The Silver Line helpline runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Simply call 0800 470 8090. If you’d like to volunteer as a Silver Line friend or make a donation visit the website, www.thesilverline.org.uk