When Joanne Higgins began working for national help line The Silver Line, little did she know the extent of loneliness among elderly people in our country.
Acting as a round-the-clock lifeline for the older generation, the charity has seen a significant surge in calls so far this year.
Joanne, who has been working as a helpline advisor for nine months, said: “When I started working at The Silver Line, I really didn’t understand the major need for this service.
“My first shift in was a complete eye opener as to the loneliness and struggles of everyday life for the elderly in our country.
“It’s a very rewarding job but can also be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster. One call can have you laughing and then the next you can have tears in your eyes.
“It’s lovely when you can walk out of the door at the end of a shift and know that for a short while you have helped break the silence for someone and perhaps cheered them up.”
Last month was The Silver Line’s busiest month ever with call numbers up by 24 percent in comparison to March last year.
Callers are mainly people looking for sanctuary, reaching out to hear another human voice in times of crisis, sheer loneliness and sometimes desperation. But there are also people who are struggling with other issues and need practical help.
The charity handles on average 45,000 calls a month, which has doubled since its national launch in 2013. And the helpline experienced its busiest day ever on March 2 when the Beast from the East struck, leaving many people isolated.
The free helpline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with 68 per cent of the calls coming in during evenings and weekends.
Demand is so high, the charity is currently recruiting more advisors and searching for extra volunteers.
Head of helpline Alan Walsh said: “Advisors have to be resilient and adaptable to deal with a huge range of subject matter. People call in a myriad of emotional states, and can be confused and agitated. It’s important that the call handler can engage fully in the conversation, give verbal nods, care and empathy.
“Whilst many of our calls are from people who are struggling, we do get lots of upbeat calls from people who simply want to chat.
“I’ve engaged in conversations about all sorts, from genetic engineering to nuclear physics! There are boundaries of course, but we can share information.”
Aside from the helpline, which is based in Blackpool, there are 4,000 volunteers nationwide who work with The Silver Line’s other services: Silver Line Letters, Silver Circle, Silver Friends and Silver Connects.
Silver Line Letters puts volunteers in touch with people by letter, like a penpal, while Silver Circle is a conference type call of six to eight people who talk about mutual interests or hobbies. And Silver Friends connects volunteers with people in the community where they can engage in regular telephone calls to build up a friendship.
But it’s Silver Connects where extra volunteers are really needed. It’s the more involved aspect of the organisation which goes beyond advisory to a more pro-active method, tackling broader issues and offering practical help. There are just a couple of volunteers on board at the moment, but the charity needs around 20 to tackle the workload.
Kenny Dale, 56, who oversees Silver Connects, is passionate about his role.
He said: “Silver Connects deals with more in-depth cases. The helpline can signpost people to the right help but Silver Connects is more of an advocacy role and will take on cases to solve.
“It could be anything from housing problems to issues with Social Services or other agencies that some people find overwhelming.
“We can do the groundwork and pinpoint what’s needed.
“Sometimes the issues are really simple to solve and, to you or I, it’s an easy thing to do. But for some people it’s a huge undertaking, they lack confidence to deal with it, they don’t know where to start and that is where we come in.
“I think I have the best job in the helpline room, we help the most vulnerable who really appreciate it, it’s extremely rewarding.
“The volunteers have their own case work and can manage their own time. They build relationships with the people they are helping and find instant gratification.”
The Silver Line founder, Dame Esther Rantzen, wrote a newspaper article in 2011 about her feelings of loneliness since being bereaved and living alone for the first time.
The overwhelming number of letters she received from the ‘stiff upper lip’ generation in response – many saying they shared her experience but felt unable to tell anyone – inspired her idea of creating a ‘ChildLine for older people’.
The Duchess of Cornwall is the charity’s first Royal patron, a role she took on to coincide with her 70th birthday last year.
For an application form for one of the helpline positions email Blackpoolfirstname.lastname@example.org. To volunteer, email email@example.com