The Silver Line helpline marks 10 years of combatting elderly isolation (Image: Getty)

Can it really be ten years since the terrifying, inspiring day we launched The Silver Line Helpline? Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago, sometimes like the blink of an eye. 

So much has changed in the world since November 25 2013, but one thing has stayed the same. The scourge of loneliness.

Every now and then somebody new rediscovers the fact that loneliness is seriously damaging to our mental, physical and emotional health. Most recently it was the World Health Organization. They announced they are now creating a special new commission to create connections for isolated people.

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In every country, according to the WHO, one in four older people suffer the serious damage caused by loneliness.

I wish their new commission every success. I hope they will find new answers to the question that has been with us so long.

How can we protect vulnerable people from what Mother Theresa called “the most terrible poverty of all”?

And it’s far more common than we knew, because there used to be such a taboo about admitting to it. 

At the time The Silver Line launched it was a revolutionary concept putting loneliness and isolation on the national agenda, the only free, national helpline for older people, which would be open every day and night of the year. 

So to discover how widespread the problem was, in November 2013, when we were preparing to launch our new helpline nationally, our team commissioned a special survey. It found that two and a half million older people often feel lonely, that 87% said a chat on the phone was the most help, but one quarter of them said they never, or hardly ever, had one. 

And tellingly 84% said they found it difficult to admit to friends or family how lonely they were, because they didn’t want to be a burden.

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Ah, that “B” word. Becoming a “Burden” is the dread of so many older people, the fear that condemns them to silence. 

Along with that other “B” word, “busy”, because the whole world is so busy these days, family, neighbours, shopkeepers, everyone, far too busy to stop for a cup of tea or a friendly chat.

So given the taboos surrounding the issue of loneliness, it was hardly surprising that when we launched The Silver Line Helpline on the One Show we were inundated with calls from people who, for the first time, felt safe to admit their loneliness – 3,102 calls on that first day alone. Over 8,000 calls in our first week.

Nearly two million calls in the first five years, averaging over ten thousand a week. We had opened the floodgates.

Did we make any difference? To celebrate our fifth birthday we asked that question, and almost one thousand of our callers described their experience.

By that time we had recruited thousands of volunteer befrienders to make weekly phone calls, and set up Silver Connects, a project to try and solve some bureaucratic problems. 

We were incredibly lucky in those early days, looking back I am aghast at the gamble we took. I had no plan B. 

My experience launching ChildLine had given me the confidence, but looking back I was taking a huge risk.

Because raising money to help vulnerable older people turned out to be far harder than raising funds for vulnerable children, or cancer, or lifeboats.

Not that I resent the money donated to those many other excellent charities, of course not.

But until we created The Silver Line I had no idea how difficult it would be to raise funds for a charity helping older people.

Thank heavens for Comic Relief, who funded our pilot and gave me the excellent advice that I should use some of the funds to commission an independent evaluation. 

And thank heavens the evaluation was so positive that the National Lottery decided to fund us for our first few years during which time we could learn how to provide our callers with the services they wanted, needed and deserved. 

And when the Lottery funding ran out, thank heavens for Age UK who took over The Silver Line and keep our services going to this day.

And for generous donors, like the People’s Postcode Lottery and the readers of the Daily Express, and all the other individuals who have also continued to support us, and have enabled us to provide as one of our callers described as “my lifeline.”