A Simple Fix for Generation Resilient

Esther Rantzen

As a child I was trained in resilience, although eighty years ago that was not a buzz word it has since become. I was born soon after the start of World War Two, so with the nightly bombing raids my family knew only too well that catastrophe can literally fall from the sky.

We practised hiding under the kitchen table when the air raid sirens howled, we tried on our gas masks, put black-out over the windows and tried not to complain about our diet of cod liver oil and one egg a week, because we knew the crucial thing was to survive, keep calm and carry on. As a toddler, whenever I fell over, which was pretty frequently due to a natural clumsiness, I was expected, as the song says, to pick myself up, brush myself down and start all over again.” The instruction was, if you tumble off your bike, or from the back of a donkey on the beach, get straight back onto the saddle again. So, my generation had resilience forced upon us from a very early age.

But now as an older person myself I am aware that resilience in old age can be a drawback. If you are used to being relied upon, to survive all the challenges life can throw at you, you can become reluctant to ask for help even when you need it. The last thing you want to be is a burden, on your family, or on the state. Older people are notoriously bad at claiming the benefits they are entitled to. According to the charity Independent Age, more than a million pensioners in the UK are living in poverty because they have not claimed pension credit.

That sense of becoming a burden, combined with imposed solitude, has only been heightened by Covid. The pandemic has inspired in us all the understandable fear of an illness that targets older people, the anxiety of being taken to hospital alone, the pain of isolation from the people we most love and care about. Those that I talk to voice the ultimate dread of dying alone in an intensive care unit.

Many older people have been advised to shield themselves, unable to see grandchildren, family, friends or even neighbours. If you are on your own, it can be hard to admit feeling vulnerable and lonely.

When I wrote about my feelings of loneliness after my husband died, a friend rebuked me, how could you write like that, Esther, haven’t you got too much pride?” If only those of us who do feel lonely could more easily describe how we feel, and reach out for support and company without diminishing our sense of resilience. But that now requires technology. For many older people it means learning the new digital languages, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime. Some find that uncomfortable and intimidating, and this has created an unintended consequence, a new barrier during Covid.

Yet, through it all the telephone has proved to be a lifeline. It may seem old-fashioned but I believe that this tried and tested medium which links voice-to-voice can be especially effective. For some, a weekly phone call has been enough to sustain, even enrich their lives, or as one told me, makes me feel human again”. Not for them the addiction to social media, the insatiable desire to see friends and the 24-hour social life’ that many in the younger generation crave. One phone call a week? That’s what I call resilience.

A caller to the Silver Line Helpline, John, told me recently that the most difficult challenge he faced in later life was to pick up the phone and describe honestly the devastating loneliness he was facing. John had lost his beloved wife suddenly and unexpectedly. She was his lover, his friend, and also his partner, they were ballroom champions and together they had run a very successful dance school. When she went, he lost everything.

Then the Silver Line launched, and he saw the phone number in a report on local television. He kept it for days, he still doesn’t know what made him pluck up the courage to ring. That was seven years ago, and John was matched with one of our befrienders, Wilma, a Silver Line Friend. She told me that at the beginning of their friendship John was totally depressed, never leaving the house, his car permanently stuck in the drive, that he wouldn’t even answer the phone, so she had to ring over and over again.

Gradually he began to look forward to her weekly phone calls, and one week she told him she was going line-dancing. Are you going on your own,” he asked incredulously, I couldn’t do that.” Wilma’s reply was brisk and bracing, If I can John, you can.”

Each week she would remind him that there was a local Salsa dance class, and in the end he gave in, and agreed to try it. From then on, Wilma told me I could tell from his voice that he’d got his Mojo back.” And after a year, John started to give his Sunday night dance classes again.

Imagine how life changing this was for him. The Sunday classes have been put on hold because of Covid but he and Wilma still talk to each other every week, two close friends who have never met.

Another caller, Daphne, is a retired ex-teacher who was matched with a friend who had also taught. Daphne told me that in their conversations she was able to encourage her befriender to return to teaching, so the relationship was mutually beneficial. I have learned from our callers that it’s not a sign of weakness to reach out for company. Even though we may be forced to self-isolate, now is not the time to try to survive totally independently, we all need each other.

So, do phone a friend, contact your neighbour, ring a helpline, just to remind yourself that you are part of a community that cares about you. And who knows? By reaching out to those people in these difficult times, and showing that you need and value them, you may well be building their resilience too.

Esther Rantzen is the founder of The Silver Line, a free confidential telephone helpline offering information, friendship and advice to older people in the United Kingdom.