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A friend is just a phone call away

27 August 2014

Since the Big Lottery-funded Silver Line opened nearly a year ago, it’s proved a lifeline for thousands of older people who are lonely or distressed. Robert Blow spoke to Silver Line call advisers Alan Walsh and Alyson Lazell on why it’s great to talk

“When I get off the phone I feel like I belong to the human race.” The comment is typical of the thousands of people who’ve called The Silver Line since it opened on 25 November 2013.

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Alyson Lazell

“On the first day we received 2,000 calls. People were melting the phones trying to get through.” Alan Walsh and Alison Lazell are two of the helpline’s dedicated staff who have been there right from the start. “It was as if there was this tremendous need out there, and people just couldn’t get wait to get on the phone to us.”

The statistics about older people and loneliness are frightening. More than half of all 75 year olds in the UK live alone and one in ten suffers “intense” loneliness but is reluctant to ask for help. In a poll conducted to mark the launch of The Silver Line, nine out of ten older people told researchers that “a chat on the phone” is the most helpful solution when they feel lonely but one in four say they never or seldom have someone to chat to on the phone.

I asked Alan and Alyson what a typical shift on the Silver Line feels like.

“There’s not really an average day. You hear an incredible range of life experiences. One minute, you might be talking to Welsh hill farmer; the next to a 90 year old lady from Hackney. You hear about the life of someone’s who worked all round the world. They’ve rung you for help, but at the same time talking to them is an education in itself.

“You do hear sad stories: someone with MS who hasn’t been able to leave the house for 10 years; people who’ve been married for 60 years and just lost their partner. There was one caller who’d got himself a criminal record because he kept on ringing the emergency services; he was that desperate for someone to talk to.”

Like all the Silver Line staff and volunteers, Alan and Alyson have been professionally trained in handling calls of every kind. On rare occasions they may pick up the phone and talk to someone who feels suicidal. I asked what their approach would be.

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Alan Walsh

“We try to act like a good friend. We ask open questions and we’re not judgmental. We don’t put pressure on people. Perhaps the person doesn’t really want to kill themselves; they just feel so lonely. You get an incredible feeling if you manage to turn round someone’s mood. They ring up feeling low and then you talk them through it and they end the call laughing and joking. It’s like shining a torch into the darkness. The light comes on; the mood lifts. It’s incredible to witness. ”

Alan and Alyson feel incredibly privileged to do this work, because often people will confide in them when they wouldn’t to their own family. “Sometimes the grief is too close to talk to your nearest and dearest. For example, there was a man who rang up whose wife was dying. He desperately needed comforting, but he couldn’t talk to his family because they were upset too and he felt he had to be brave for them.”

I ask what kind of person it takes to be a Silver Line call adviser. “You need good communication skills, listening skills, empathy. We talk to anybody about anything. Not all the calls are sad. Sometimes, you get to share nice things, like congratulating someone you’ve got to know on the phone who’s celebrating their 100th birthday.”

Silver Line advisers will offer a chat and sympathy if that’s all the caller wants. People often ring up just to say Good night. But they will also try to signpost someone who’s feeling lonely and isolated to somewhere where they can make friends, such as an Age UK lunch club. The Silver Line’s remit is as wide as the needs of older people, so people will ring up who need practical help but don’t know where to turn. Alan and Alyson have the knowledge and information at hand to direct someone to the right council service or government department.

Both Alan and Alyson obviously love their jobs. Working on the Silver Line might be an “emotional rollercoaster” but for them it offers satisfactions and compensations far from the draining routine of target-driven environments.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to work in a place where everyone is so committed. Most jobs are about money. But this is about having a conversation with a real person.”

The Silver Line is a free, 24 hour confidential helpline for older people, open all day, every day, offering information, friendship, advice, and protection from abuse and neglect.

Need help or just someone to chat to? You can call the Silver Line at any time on 0800 4 70 80 90.

The Silver Line was set up in 2013 with a £5 million award from the Big Lottery Fund.

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