by Dame Esther Rantzen 

estherI had one of the briefest political careers in history, when I stood as an Independent candidate for Luton South. But although, sadly, it didn’t lead to an exciting new life in the House of Commons, it did mean that for a few months I was able to immerse myself in the community, including a memorable visit to a care home for frail older people. I was invited to tea, and having spoken to the residents there, a care worker took me to one side to ask if I could do something to counteract the myth that all care homes are bad, and that to ‘put Mum into a home’ is an act of sadistic callousness. ‘Look at our residents,’ she said. ‘If they were trying to survive in their own homes, they would never have this standard of food and care, and the company, and the activities. We try to make sure they have a real quality of life here, that they are happy. And we love our work. And yet nobody ever talks about the difference we make, you only ever hear about the horror stories.’

Of course she was right. Well-run homes can transform lives of older people who may otherwise become so vulnerable and isolated that they feel, as one lady wrote to me ‘my life is pointless, and I’m a waste of space.’ It’s part of the ageism of our society that an older person should be made to feel valueless, simply because of their age. Equally, that same ageism means that the people who work with older people all too often also feel ignored and undervalued.   We need to spotlight the best practice, and celebrate it.

Some older people prefer to live on their own. Others thrive in company. Recently I visited a sheltered housing project where a retired artist had decided to hold a card-making class for other residents, it was fun, it was creative and the artist herself felt she was contributing the skills she had honed over a busy life-time. Everyone enjoyed it, but it was only possible because they were all living together as a community.

That being said, we also receive calls at The Silver Line helpline from the residents of sheltered housing and care homes who tell us they are still lonely.  One memorable call we received in the depth of winter, soon after we opened our helpline, was from a lady making the call from the bathroom, on a borrowed mobile phone, reporting that her care home had no heating on, that the food was inadequate and she was extremely fearful of asking for help. Other callers ring us from sheltered housing to tell us that even there it’s possible to be extremely lonely. Not all the other residents are friendly and the staff are often not on site, or not around at weekends or holidays. I remember a lady telling me on Christmas day how empty and silent the place was and how profoundly lonely she felt.

So it’s a crucial decision for older people and their families, and the aim of this handbook is to assist them, so that they can find the right care and support including well-run homes when they need them, and projects with caring committed staff. It is incumbent upon them that if things go wrong, they ask for help. And we in the media have a responsibility too, to spread the message that ‘being put into a home’ may in fact not be a prison sentence, but the reverse, a liberation, and a positive transformation.

Dame Esther Rantzen

Journalist and TV presenter, Dame Esther Rantzen, is founder of The Silver Line, a 24-hour free helpline for lonely, elderly people. 0800 4 70 80 90