Kind voices at the end of the line


Senior Helpline's 300 volunteers hope they can help the elderly people who call them, often out of loneliness. Rosita Boland reports

The clock on the wall of the bright and tidy Unit 3b at Killinarden Enterprise Park in Tallaght shows 10 a.m., and Rosaleen O'Neill and Teresa Kennedy, two volunteers, have cups of tea in their hands, waiting for the phone to start ringing.

For the next three hours O'Neill and Kennedy, who are in their 70s, will field calls to the Senior Helpline. Between January and June this year the line received 60 per cent more calls than it did in the same period last year, with loneliness accounting for most calls.

"There is never a morning there are no calls at all," Kennedy says.

She and O'Neill have been on the volunteers' panel at the Tallaght centre for two years; their turn comes around every six weeks. It so happens that the 20-plus volunteers in Tallaght are female, but overall the helpline's 300 volunteers, spread between centres around the country, are fairly evenly mixed. The men and women range in age from their 60s to their 90s - the eldest is 92, based in the Limerick centre.

While they're waiting for the phone to ring (there are two lines), the women explain what a typical morning is like. They are very down to earth and reassuring; you imagine them being nothing but kindly and calming at the end of a helpline.

"We get maybe five or six calls a morning," O'Neill says. "We used to get some crank calls in the beginning, but there are very few of them now. We do get some repeat and regular callers, but there are always new people too. And we get the occasional odd call, like the woman who called us to ask who she could get to clean her windows!"

Volunteers, who all receive training, are advised to keep calls to about 10 minutes, but some callers inevitably need more time, particularly if they are very distressed. They get more calls in winter than in summer. Some calls are functional, looking for information about social-welfare benefits and other practical matters. But both women confirm that loneliness accounts for most of their calls.

Eddie Sadlier, joint co-ordinator of the centre, has dropped in; he observes that they have had an increase in calls about bullying within the family of an older person.

"When you get older you're more dependent on people, and you're afraid to say anything to them," Kennedy says, looking down at her tea.

The phone rings, and O'Neill jumps up to go into a private booth, out of earshot, to take the call. There are nine centres at the moment - besides Tallaght and Limerick, they are in Finglas, Mullingar, Cavan, Sligo, Waterford, Ballincollig, in Co Cork, and Summerhill, in Co Meath. Two more, in Galway and Arklow, are scheduled to open in the next few months, with volunteers already training.

Calls to the helpline are charged at the local rate. Each centre is allocated a morning or evening, and between them they provide a service six hours a day, seven days a week.

O'Neill is on the line for 15 minutes. Her first-time caller was phoning from a rural area. Unmarried, he had sold up in Dublin after retirement and bought a house in the country. He had planned to settle there with his unmarried sibling, who since died, leaving him isolated in a rural community where he had no roots. Not being a drinker, he hadn't met people through the local pub.

"He is pure lonely," O'Neill says simply. She had suggested he try to find out if there were any social clubs; he told her he felt a bit better for the call and that he would ring the helpline again now he had done it once.

"The first contact you make is the most important, and it's so important to get it right," says Sadlier. "The first time to call is the hardest; if you feel reassured you'll find it easier to call again if you need to."

The phone rings again; Kennedy takes it this time. Twenty minutes later she returns. It's a regular city-based caller who became ill a couple of years ago and is now confined to a wheelchair. She says her husband leaves her a flask of water each morning with which she makes tea and cups of soup; then she waits for him to come home each evening. Nobody calls to the house and she can't go out alone. She's lonely and depressed. Every time they've been on the helpline she has called.

O'Neill takes the next call, which lasts 15 minutes. It's a woman from a rural area. She was widowed earlier in the year and has no children. She lives in a very isolated part of the country and is lonely. She's called once before. "She said herself and her husband used to look after each other and now there is no one. She keeps crying. She says she is so lonely and how she is dreading Christmas," says O'Neill. "She sounded very depressed. I'm a widow myself, so I was able to talk to her about it and say that you don't get over a loss but that it gets easier and the first year is the hardest. I think it helped her to talk to someone who'd been through the same thing; she said she did feel better after calling."

The helpline is funded by the health boards. Mary Nally, the helpline's national co-ordinator, would like to see the service developing so it can offer more hours. There is currently no afternoon or night service, and night-time hours are traditionally the busiest for helpline calls in general. "If you have a problem to share it's very hard to hold onto that problem by yourself all night," she points out.

Even at second hand, in edited versions of the calls coming through on the Tallaght line, the sense of loneliness is powerful and poignant. It's no myth: many desperately lonely elderly people live among us. Old age is a time when most of us hope to be supported both with some creature comforts and by the company of family and friends built up over a lifetime. For many of those calling the Senior Helpline, for one reason or another, these hopes haven't materialised.

"The helpline is a great service, really," Kennedy says meditatively, between calls. "I've never felt like I'm wasting my time here, ever."

Then the phone rings again and she vanishes into the booth once more, bending her head forward over the receiver.

The Senior Helpline is at 1850-440444. Calls are charged at the local rate