'The Silver Line is their lifeline': Esther Rantzen on why we need to tackle the loneliness crisis among the elderly

Dame Esther Rantzen, in Eltham, south east London, at the home of Peggy Weaver
Dame Esther Rantzen, in Eltham, south east London, at the home of Peggy Weaver Credit: Clara Molden

Peggy Weaver’s living room in Eltham, south London, is a shrine to her life: framed ­photographs of her children; piles of ­letters and postcards from friends and colleagues; a bureau lovingly built by her husband, Sid. She is a bright and sociable 89-year-old who has travelled around the world six times, yet now she’s on her own – Sid died 10 years ago and her children are grown up and scattered around the country. If it wasn’t for her friend Pauline, who calls every Monday morning for a chat, she says she wouldn’t have anything to get out of bed for. “I hate the mornings the most. I hate waking up in this flat all alone,” she says. “It makes all the difference to hear a friendly voice.” 

Pauline was put in touch with Mrs Weaver by the charity The Silver Line (thesilverline.org.uk), one of three charities supported by the Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal, which launches today.

The charity was founded by Dame Esther Rantzen in 2013 to bring companionship to the 1.2 million older people in Britain believed to be struggling with severe loneliness and chronic ­isolation. Peggy and Pauline have never met in person but their chats – about the weather, what’s on television and their families – have become a lifeline for Weaver, who now speaks to someone from The Silver Line every morning when she wakes up. 

“There’s no sense of obligation with a Silver Line friend,” explains Dame ­Esther, who also launched the children’s charity ChildLine in 1996. “You’re only talking to each other because you want to – that’s the nature of the relationship and it makes it easy.” 

It is a sunny Friday morning and Dame Esther and I have travelled to Eltham to meet Mrs Weaver at the flat she moved to 10 years ago from a larger, terraced house on the other side of town. She was nursing Sid, at the time, through diabetes and later dementia; the flat was chosen for its views over a cricket pitch he used to play on. “I didn’t want to move – we were persuaded by the children because Sid was getting stressed out by the garden,” says Peggy, as she helps us hang up our coats. “I don’t like it; and now the trees have grown up and you can’t even see the cricket pitch.” 

Her real home, she tells us, is still her old house, the one she and Sid bought together in March 1953, three months before they married. Sid had been in the RAF and was working in accounts for a trade newspaper group where Mrs Weaver was a secretary. They struck up a conversation one afternoon as they walked from the office to the bus stop, and that was that, she says. “We bought the house because it had such a long garden – Sid loved his vegetable patch; we had to have an extra freezer because there was so much soft fruit.”

While Peggy makes tea in the small kitchen, Dame Esther tells me that many of the elderly people she meets feel indifferent about their granny flats and care homes, even with favourite possessions crammed in around them. “It’s like caging a bird,” she says. 

Peggy Weaver and her late husband Sidney on their wedding day

Mrs Weaver’s children did the right thing by encouraging her to move somewhere safe and secure, she adds. Sid was frail and the housing community provides support and a ready-made social scene with weekly afternoon teas and bingo for residents, but the move has shrunk Peggy’s world. “There’s a difference between being lonely and alone,” Dame Esther says. “Loneliness is about loss: it can be the loss of your husband, your house, your freedom.”

Mrs Weaver, who had a busy career in newspapers then as a secretary for the House of Commons, has lost all these things. She appears nimble, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits into the living room, and showing us pictures of Sid in his RAF uniform, the evening suit she stitched for him by hand, treasured photographs of her youngest son David, who died in a caving accident. Yet she suffers from labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear which causes dizziness and took away her driving licence. She can no longer visit old neighbours, drive to see her children or even go for fish and chips.

Her days are spent stranded in her living room, hoping that the telephone will ring. “In the House of Commons, hundreds of people would pass me in the corridor and say ‘hello’, but Sundays here are like living in a morgue. It’s as if I disappeared when Sid died.”

Dame Esther uses two “B” words – busy and burden – to explain why people like Peggy with loving families feel so isolated that they call The Silver Line (to date, it has received more than 2.5 million calls). “The younger generations are so busy and older people don’t like to be a burden,” she says. But elderly people, like anyone, need time; it’s not enough to check in; they need a half-hour chat over a cup of tea while they talk about their memories, a hug. There is a difference between contact and company. Without regular company they cease to feel part of the human race.”

It is a British scandal, Dame Esther says, that five million older people consider the television their main form of company. Mrs Weaver shows us her copy of Radio Times, with each programme she has recorded meticulously circled: Mastermind, A Question of Sport, House of Games. “I don’t know what l’d do without the television,” she says. “At least it’s a person and some noise.”

Dame Esther enjoys quiz shows too, and Antiques Roadshow – since her husband, the television producer and journalist Desmond Wilcox, died of a heart attack in 2000, she’s become a television binger herself. “There is a community across the country who do what I do and spend their evenings in front of the TV, eating cheese and biscuits and an apple. Who is going to bother cooking for themselves? Not me,” she says. 

Dame Esther insists her situation is different to Peggy Weaver’s – aged 79 she still has her health and independence; she’s a much-loved grandmother who sees a lot of her three children, Miriam, Rebecca and Joshua, and still has a close group of friends from university, her career in television and her marriage. Yet even as a healthy, active widow there are times – usually in the evenings and at night – when she feels ­desperately lonely. “You get these ­awful pangs,” she says. “I have plenty of people to do things with yet crucially I have no one to do nothing with.” 

In the early days after Wilcox’s death she became so sick of being alone that she tried to persuade Miriam, then in her early 30s, to move in. “I was, of course, thinking of myself. Of walking around my empty flat with no one to talk to. Of evenings spent curled up on my sofa watching dire reality shows,” she wrote in a newspaper. “I am totally unfit to live alone.” Yet the sad fact is that in this country three out of five women over 75 must do exactly this. 

On the day Dame Esther would have been celebrating her 36th wedding ­anniversary, she launched The Silver Line, a “Childline for old people”, offering 24-hour companionship for those aged 55 and over. On the first day there were 800 calls; she remembers returning home to her empty house so exhausted that she fell asleep on the sofa. “There were people who just wanted someone to say goodnight to,” she says.

Esther Rantzen meets Peggy Weaver Credit: Clara Molden

The Silver Line, headquartered in Blackpool, recently joined forces with Age UK and now receives 10,500 calls per week from older people, with ­almost 70 per cent made at night and weekends when other services are closed. Ninety per cent of callers live alone and more than half say they have no one else to speak to. “I spoke to one elderly gentleman on Christmas Day,” Dame Esther recalls, “and he said, ‘To be honest, Esther, you are the first person I’ve spoken to all day.’ When I rang him back a week later, he told me I was the only person he had spoken to all through Christmas and the New Year.” 

There is a denial about the reality of old age in this country, Dame Esther says. “Even active elderlies don’t like to think about inactive elderlies – all they see is the white hair.” There are, of course, organisations to help elderly people meet new friends but, as Dame Esther has experienced, it takes confidence to put yourself out there ­after the death of a lifetime partner. “Loneliness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; you think, ‘do they really want to see me?’ ” she says. 

Several times during our conversation, Peggy says, “the sooner I’m with Sid the better”. It’s a big step to make the first call to The Silver Line but it is incredible how therapeutic a friendly voice can be, Dame Esther says. “You can articulate your feelings to someone neutral without burdening or upsetting your closest relative.”

She shows me a letter from Beryl, who says that the night she spoke to The ­Silver Line was the first time she had slept since the death of her husband. “I didn’t want to go on living without him but once I’d unburdened myself of my deepest feelings I felt much calmer,” she wrote. 

There are now more than 2,000 volunteers, the majority of whom are Silver Line friends making regular weekly calls. However, the charity desperately needs more Silver Line friends, and is urgently recruiting 300 volunteers to cover daytime shifts on the helplines in its London and Blackpool offices. The Telegraph’s appeal aims to encourage more people to volunteer, as well as to raise vital funds for the charity.

Jane Knight, 65, from Camberley, became a Silver Line volunteer a year ago and says her relationship with a lonely caller from Newcastle has blossomed into a proper friendship. “I’ve become really close to her; I expected it to be a one-sided thing but it’s enriched my life, too. She shares her experiences and tells me about her friends; I talk about my elderly mother and my cats. Half an hour a week isn’t much of a commitment at all.” 

As well as one-to-one calls, the charity – the Duchess of Cornwall is patron and Dame Judi Dench is an ambassador – runs Silver Circles, weekly group calls for people with shared interests (Peggy joins one every Thursday) and a Silver Connect service, through which volunteers provide practical ­advice and link callers to local services such as lunch clubs and financial advisers. “One of our callers couldn’t leave the house for two years as they didn’t have a wheelchair ramp; we got them one in two days,” Dame Esther says. 

Peggy Weaver and her late husband Sidney

Loneliness is physically as well as mentally damaging – as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to one study – but the number of ­isolated elderly people in Britain is predicted to rise to two million by 2026. “With a child there’s always hope; you can believe that tomorrow can be better than today,” Dame Esther says. “But with elderly people, you really wonder how you can change their lives for the better.” Technology can help open up their world, she continues – Age UK runs courses teaching elderly people to use email and Skype, for example – yet many, Mrs Weaver included, are dogmatic when it comes to computers. “I won’t use one; I won’t even charge my mobile phone,” she says. 

This is why The Silver Line and its volunteers are so invaluable. “In the end, I always say, ‘I’d better go, I’m worried about your phone bill’,” Peggy says. “You needn’t be,” Dame Esther chides. “The charity is paying for every second of your call.” 

I leave them enjoying fish and chips in Mrs Weaver’s living room; she has laid the table with fish knives and forks, her best china and a tablecloth. As Peggy hurries back to the kitchen for the ketchup, Dame Esther turns to me and says: “She’s on form, she’s bright, she’s worked hard and raised a family. Don’t you think she’s earned more than this?” 

Read The Silver Line Ambassador Bob Lowe's story about loneliness after losing his wife of 65 years