In the early days of the pandemic, before the virus had carved its devastating path through our care homes, before the months of restrictions set in and isolation had become part of our national psyche, a familiar refrain rang out: ‘It only affects old people.’
It’s true to say older people remain the most likely to become seriously ill with Covid-19, but it is also the older generation who have borne the brunt of a year of lockdowns.
Since March, there has been much talk about loneliness, about the need to look out for our neighbours and check in with friends who might be struggling. But for the 225,000 older people in the UK who regularly went a week without speaking to anyone in normal times, let alone during a pandemic, this year has brought new wells of isolation.
Joyce Fisher has spent six years working on the front line of Britain’s loneliness epidemic, answering calls to The Silver Line night after night – often well into the wee hours – from distressed, lonely older people. In the past nine months, the charity has experienced a tidal wave of calls, as people whose only regular contact used to be the district nurse or the postman, suddenly found themselves even more isolated.
‘They’re like the forgotten people, really,’ says Joyce. ‘This year, younger people experienced the isolation and struggled to deal with it. But we’ve got people in our community living like that not just this year but every year.’
There are currently 2.8 million people aged over 70 living alone in Britain. Age UK says one in three feel that their levels of anxiety are worse than ever, with the proportion of over-70s experiencing depression now double what it was at the start of the pandemic. Demand for The Silver Line, then, has soared. Since March, calls have risen by 31 per cent, while requests for the charity’s Telephone Friendship service (which connects older people with a volunteer for a weekly chat) has trebled.
These are people for whom contact in normal times might have amounted to a twice weekly chat with the girl in Costa Coffee. Shielding has left them without those small moments that helped stem the tide of loneliness. ‘The chap that delivered their shopping, who would have carried it in and had a five or 10-minute conversation with them, now isn’t supposed to, so they’re missing out on things like that,’ says Joyce. ‘And a lot of the time when they say, “My friend such and such,” it might actually be the girl that works in the local shop. There are even people ringing the ambulance service just for a little bit of company.’
Many just call for a chat before bed, telling the call handler what they had for dinner and what they watched on TV. It’s easy to forget that conversations like this are the stuff of life – all those little things we take for granted until there’s no one there to bear witness to our lives and share our news with.
Some call in the evening to say goodnight and then again in the morning, just so somebody will know they are still alive. Some ring for help with something specific, like technological difficulties or financial pressures. ‘I was talking to a lady who is having to move because of damp in her building and she hasn’t found anywhere to move to. I just want to get in my car and go and find her a flat. She was just crying and getting upset.’
Others who ring are struggling with complex mental-health issues that have been exacerbated in lockdown. ‘For people with mental-health problems, like paranoia, it’s a terrible situation,’ says Joyce.
For many isolated older people, the fear of this invisible virus has been deeply distressing. ‘You’ve only said your name before they’ve decided they want to argue about something. It isn’t personal, they’re just frustrated. They just really don’t know what to do. They’re frightened about not wearing their masks properly, or if a carer leaves one hanging around when they’re finished with them, they ring up saying, “What do I do with this? Will I catch it if I touch it?”’
The helpline has been a constant throughout. ‘We’re still 24- hour, we’re still every day of the year and we always take the call,’ says Joyce.
So often there is nothing Joyce can say to help on any practical level, she can only listen. She tries to meet their distress with a kind ear and pull them out of the doldrums with cheeriness. She likes to remind her older callers that they came through a war. ‘I’ll say, “Can you imagine in the Blitz if people had said, ‘No, I’m having the light on, I don’t care about blackout curtains.’ We’d be in a right mess wouldn’t we?” And they’re like, “You’re right!” It doesn’t do any harm just to remind them – you got through that, you’ll get through this. You’re in your own home, you’ve got your memories, you’ve got your things, you’ve got warmth, you’ve got the television.’
One thing they don’t have, she says, is proper human contact. ‘They’ve got lots of things that are familiar, but they’re not getting a hug. I’m sending more virtual hugs down the phone at the moment than ever.’
In a year when we have all struggled to cope, an open ear in the form of a loved one at the end of the phone, or a stranger on a park bench has so often been the only thing that has helped. This is the magic of The Silver Line – a band of Good Samaritans providing genuine warmth and continuity, 24 hours a day, to millions of Britain’s loneliest souls. And they’ll keep doing so, even after the pandemic is finally over.
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The Silver Line’s 24-hour helpline is on 0800 470 8090. Visit thesilverline.org.uk for more information or to donate