Elderly helpline struggles to cope with calls

Cuts to services, loneliness, fear of crime, and losing loved ones to emigration has led to a huge surge in calls to a helpline for the elderly.

Senior Help Line, the country’s only national peer-to-peer listening service for older people, received more than 28,500 calls last year — almost twice as many as it can answer, and up 5,000 in two years.

Loneliness brought about by a lack of social contact is still the main reason callers contact the helpline. However, Third Age, the group that runs the year-round service staffed by 345 volunteers, said it has identified a new concern — the pain of emigration — which is having a huge impact.

“Emigration of sons and daughters has a particularly harsh impact on many older people and one which has been largely ignored in policy debate,” said a Third Age spokesperson.

While loneliness underlines most of the calls, people contacting the helpline have also spoken of their fears following a spate of robberies and attacks on older people, particularly those living alone in isolated areas.

Callers have also raised concerns about the rising cost of living, property tax and water charges, cuts to services for the elderly, instances of elder abuse, and feelings of suicide.

Senior Helpline CEO Áine Brady said the huge volume of calls is reflective of the concerns and worries elderly people are experiencing in Ireland today.

“We are seeing an increase in demand for our services, but we would urge any older person who is worried about issues concerning health, family, loneliness, emigration, or any other matter to call us,” she said.

“We will do our best to help them find a voice and share their problem or to break the cycle of loneliness.”

Third Age, which has seen its core funding from the HSE reduced, but which also gets support from Atlantic Philanthropies, is now embarking on a major restructuring programme.

It plans to centralise its operation in Dublin in a phased basis over the next two years before recruiting more volunteers.

“This will put us in a much better position to respond to calls,” said the Third Age spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services said its Mental Health Support and Information Service saw a 47% increase in calls relating to adolescent mental health last year.

Clinical psychologist Paul Gilligan said a constant diet of negative commentary is damaging children’s mental health.

“We are being constantly reminded of how badly Irish society has ‘messed up’ and how long it is going to take for us to recover,” he said. “Some commentators are talking of a lost decade.

“Our young people are not immune to these factors and the sad truth is this destructive environment is serving to destroy their mental health. We need to change the story.”

* You can contact Senior Help Line on 1850 440 444, 365 days a year from 10am-10pm, for the price of a local call from anywhere in Ireland.

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