Reach out

With 2,900,000 older people feeling they have no one to turn to for help and support, Aileen Scoular meets Dame Esther Rantzen and Provincial Grand Almoner Ernie Greenhalgh to find out how Freemasons are making a difference in West Lancashire.

Reach out.

Reach out.

No one wants to feel alone. But for the 11,000,000 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% of the elderly people who use its service receive visits just once a week or less, while almost half don’t even know their neighbours.

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, creator of The Silver Line, a telephone helpline for older people.

Following an invite from West Lancashire Province, Dame Esther visited a Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) care home in Eccles 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. And we try to instil that in every single member,” says Ernie. “In my view, the role of the almoner is a vital part of life in every lodge – 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. The Silver Line was launched fully towards the end of 2013 and includes a befriending service to help combat loneliness. But starting the service wasn’t easy, as she recalls.

“The idea came to me in a puff of smoke, really. I was standing at a conference about the elderly, and I was 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.”

Dame Ester Rantzen DBE.

Dame Ester Rantzen DBE.

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 Christmas Day in years that he had talked to someone. Many elderly people can go for a couple of weeks without having a proper conversation. But it can happen to anyone – there are a lot of intelligent, interesting, good people who find themselves isolated.”

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 partner or loved one can also bring on intense feelings of isolation. It’s a familiar topic for Ernie’s team. West Lancashire is the largest of the Provinces under the banner of the United Grand Lodge of England. The widows of its brethren are primary beneficiaries of the Province’s care team, particularly in times of sickness, personal distress and financial hardship. The support is there when it’s needed, and Ernie has a loyal group of almoners with a strong set of shoulders and a compassionate ear.

Almoner Danny Parks, 76, and Regional Care Officer George Seddon, 73, have experienced personal loss themselves and can empathise closely 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 – they affect people’s lives.”

George agrees: “In this Province, 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 and former hotelier 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.

Ernie Greenhalgh and Dame Ester Rantzen DBE.

Ernie Greenhalgh and Dame Ester Rantzen DBE.

For Ernie, it’s vital that the members and widows of West Lancashire Province are fully aware of the support available to them. “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.” Alan feels that Ernie’s changes have made the role a lot more rewarding, while Danny is a big fan of the almoner training available in the Province. “It’s exceptional,” he says. ‘It includes lots of role-play and workshops.”

Believing that there is still much work to be done when it comes to helping older people, some of Ernie’s team are now 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 and almoners across the UK 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 (www.thesilverline.org.uk) to see how to apply.”

Thanks to Ernie, George, Alan and Danny, and all the other almoners across the 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.”

Friends for life.
Mavis Johnson lost her husband 25 years ago, when her sons were aged just three, eight and 16. Since then, she has found the support and friendship from West Lancashire’s Provincial care team invaluable.

The loss and grief were immense but the fact that my children had lost their father was the hardest thing to cope with. My husband and his father had both been Freemasons, so I was aware of the lodge members from social events. But I didn’t have to ask for help – they were there from the outset. Looking back, it was quite wonderful. You can’t put a monetary value on that kind of emotional support.”

“The lodge helped my boys through school and university, and guided them along the right career paths. It has been reassuring to watch them progress and succeed in their lives, creating their own families and starting their own businesses, despite that early loss. The pastoral care was like a safety net that helped me make the right decisions. Life would have been unimaginable without it.

“25 years on, I still get monthly visits from my almoner to see how I am. My life is now very rewarding but it’s reassuring to know that you’ve not been forgotten about. The almoner is like a friend who never goes away.”