Senior Help Line is upgrading its communications systems to double the capacity of its phone lines which will move from regional offices to a national centre in Dublin, as well as training more volunteers to run the service.
The kind of calls its volunteers, who number 370, must be prepared to handle cover a wide variety of concerns, including the cost of living, cuts to services, elder abuse, fear of crime and suicidal feelings.
However, the most common theme among the 6,400 calls received by the confidential listening service during the first three months of this year was isolation and loneliness.
Senior Help Line chief executive Áine Brady said: “For many older people, their trusted circle of friends has diminished and there is no one to share a worry or even the joys of life with.
“Isolation can create a build-up of problems which is ultimately not good for either the individual or society. We urge any older person who is worried about issues concerning health, family or any other matter to call us.”
Some of the calls from recent weeks show how acute the isolation problem is. One caller confided: “I am going mad with loneliness,” and another said: “I have nobody in my life and need you to listen.”
Other typical comments that give an insight into the lonely lives of older people were: “The house is so empty since Christmas” and “I have no contact with family any more”.
Anne Dempsey of the Third Age voluntary organisation which runs the help line said that while the winter was often a difficult time for older people, the change in seasons brought its own challenges.
“It can be a very bittersweet time for people, when the sun is shining and everyone else is looking forward to getting out and about and it heightens their sense of isolation,” said Ms Dempsey. “Some of our calls are from people who simply want to hear a voice and chat about general things, and others are concerning a particular problem or crisis.”
Senior Help Line was set up 16 years ago by older people for older people to ensure callers could talk to someone from their age group who understood their concerns.
Originally a part-time service, it now runs from 10am to 10pm daily, including Christmas Day which, says Ms Dempsey —who was among the volunteers receiving calls last Christmas — can be a very busy day.
Atlantic Philanthropies and the HSE fund the help line, but with HSE cutbacks and Atlantic Philanthropies ending its grant programmes in 2016, securing long-term funding is now an issue. “Donations are always welcome,” said Ms Dempsey.
The switch-over from the regional call centres to Dublin was being carried out on a phased basis and work was ongoing to find other volunteer opportunities within Third Age for the regional personnel.
“They have been very dedicated and have gained important skills from working on the help line and we don’t want to lose them,” said Ms Dempsey.
Anyone wanting to talk to listener can contact the service for the price of a local call on 1850 440 444.