With 2.9 million older people feeling they have no one to turn to for help and support, Aileen Scoular meets Dame Esther Rantzen DBE and Provincial Grand Almoner Ernie Greenhalgh to find out how Freemasons are making a difference in West Lancashire
No one wants to feel alone. But for the 11 million people in the UK aged 65 and over, loneliness and isolation are all too familiar. A survey by Age UK has revealed that one in four older people feel that they have no one to go to for help and support.
Contact the Elderly, another UK charity that aims to lessen the effects of isolation, echoes these views: other than visits from a carer, around 70 per cent of the elderly people who use its service receive visits just once a week or less.
Yet loneliness and isolation can be avoided.
A chat on the phone, a cup of tea or a shared joke with a neighbour takes just minutes, but the positive effects of human interaction last long after the conversation ends. The reassuring news is that there are organisations out there making that happen, one of which is the Freemasons.
In West Lancashire, Provincial Grand Almoner Ernie Greenhalgh has spent his first two years in the job making positive changes that will allow his lodge almoners and care officers to spend more time on active care and less time on paperwork. And Ernie has found an equally compassionate ally in Dame Esther Rantzen DBE – founder of ChildLine in 1986 and, more recently, The Silver Line, a telephone helpline for older people.
Invited by the Province of West Lancashire, Dame Esther visited Ecclesholme, a Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) care home in Manchester, at the end of last year to gain a better understanding of the needs of elderly RMBI residents. Both she and Ernie believe that effective pastoral care can transform people’s lives.
‘A core value among Freemasons has always been to help those less fortunate than yourself. We try to instil that in every single member,’ says Ernie. ‘The role of the almoner is a vital part of lodge life – not just to manage financial needs, but to deal with loneliness and isolation as well.’
Isolation is a topic that also comes up in conversation with Dame Esther, and The Silver Line, which launched at the end of 2013, includes a befriending service to help combat loneliness.
‘The idea came to me when I was standing at a conference about the elderly, discussing an article I’d written about living alone for the first time, aged 71,’ she explains. ‘I got the most extraordinary flashback to the same situation 30 years before, when I had been talking about another problem with a stigma attached – namely, child abuse. Because no one wants to admit to loneliness, do they? Many older people are very proud and they don’t want to be a burden.’
Just 18 months on, The Silver Line is taking up to 1,000 calls a day. The befriending service has a waiting list of 1,000 people, and the charity is training its volunteers (known as Silver Line Friends) at a rate of 100 a week. There’s no doubt in Dame Esther’s mind that her helpline is fulfilling an intrinsic need for many elderly people.
‘Most of our callers tell us they have no one else they can talk to,’ she says sadly. ‘One Christmas, I spoke to a caller and he said it was the first time in years that he had talked to someone on Christmas Day. Many elderly people can go for a couple of weeks without having a proper conversation. It can happen to anyone – there are a lot of intelligent, interesting people who find themselves isolated.’
Isolating the problem
Loneliness is normally caused by loss of some kind – a partner, a job, or someone’s sight, hearing or mobility, for example. Becoming a carer to a loved one can also bring on intense feelings of isolation. It’s a familiar topic for Ernie’s care team in the Province of West Lancashire, where the widows of the brethren are key beneficiaries, particularly in times of sickness and financial hardship. The support is there when it’s needed, and Ernie has a loyal group of almoners with a compassionate ear.
Almoner Danny Parks, 76, and Regional Care Officer George Seddon, 73, have experienced personal loss themselves and can empathise with the feelings of despair that follow. ‘An almoner needs to be caring, considerate, diplomatic and sympathetic – all of that comes into it,’ says Danny. ‘I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people. I lost my wife and there’s nothing worse than the loneliness. It’s a dreadful thing and some people can cope with it, and some can’t.’
Danny has great faith in face-to-face contact and he diligently visits the 15 widows in his care on a fortnightly basis. ‘You have to get out of the house and meet people – that’s when you find out what help they really need,’ he explains. ‘Their problems might only be small, but they’re still problems.’
George agrees: ‘There are many people in need but they’re too proud to ask. My mum was 99 when she died so I’ve been able to draw on my own experience. You need to be understanding and able to find solutions where you can. It’s all about gaining people’s confidence and developing trust.’
Almoner Alan Whitehouse, 70, believes talking is crucial: ‘Some of the people we visit have seen no one for weeks. They have probably outlived their friends and peers, which is very sad.’ Alan uses his homemade jams and chutneys as a ‘door-opener’ and makes sure he’s always available on the other end of the phone. All three men praise the changes that Ernie has made to the structure of the West Lancashire Provincial care team.
Getting out and about
For Ernie, it’s vital that the members and widows of the Province are aware of the support available. ‘It’s not always easy to identify exactly who needs help – particularly when elderly people are reluctant to ask for it,’ he explains. ‘So I’m trying to enable the almoners to spend more time delivering pastoral care, and less time doing admin.’
Believing that there is still much work to be done when it comes to helping older people, some of Ernie’s team are also becoming Silver Line Friends. George was the first to sign up and is currently being trained by the charity. ‘It’s a good transfer of skills and experience, and the training they offer is excellent,’ he says.
Dame Esther hopes that other Freemasons will consider volunteering, too. ‘Being a Silver Line Friend only takes an hour a week,’ she says. ‘You can do it from your own home and we provide all the training. If you enjoy having conversations with other people, do visit our website to apply.’
Thanks to Ernie, George, Alan and Danny, and all the other almoners across West Lancashire Province, the older community is in safe hands. According to George, ‘The role of the almoner is the most rewarding job in Freemasonry.’
The Silver Line is a free, confidential service: 0800 4 70 80 90, www.thesilverline.org.uk