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Loneliness and the politics of ageing: 3 questions with Esther Rantzen

The veteran journalist on loneliness, Mary Berry, and assisted suicide.

Esther Rantzen1

Esther Louise Rantzen is a British journalist and television presenter, who is probably best known for presenting the television series That's Life! for 21 years on the BBC. She is also known for her extensive charity work: She set up ChildLine in 1986, followed by The Silver Line, designed to combat loneliness, in 2012. Here, she answers our questions about ageing, loneliness and assisted suicide.

 

Does society encourage us to fear ageing?

Yes, so often older people are portrayed negatively and unfairly. For instance, they are criticised as bed-blockers in hospital because too often it’s not safe for them to go home to recover from treatment or surgery, and house-blockers when they stay in homes that have become too big for them, because there are not enough safe appropriate-sized houses for them to move into.

Loneliness is a condition that blights people irrespective of age. Why have you focused on elderly people in particular?

I absolutely agree that loneliness can strike at any age. However, there is a particular poignancy about the loneliness that affects older people – as we know, there are people who live alone quite happily and enjoy their own company. However, if you are used to being the centre of family life, surrounded by friends with a loving partner, or perhaps had a busy job, and gradually all this disappears, it can be devastating.

There is a stigma attached to loneliness. And the older generation is a proud generation, used to being relied upon, and independent. They don’t like asking for help, but the elderly are everyone’s responsibility.

Loneliness, in my view, is about loss: the loss of a partner, or a role, or a sense like sight or hearing, or independence when you lose a driving licence. As one seventy-year old lady wrote to me, “I feel my days are pointless, and I am a waste of space.”

I think this loss of self-esteem is the most profoundly destructive loss, and a contributing factor is the negative portrayal of old age as a disaster, a social problem, with no visible public role models. Thank goodness, at least, for Mary Berry.


Do you agree with assisted suicide for the elderly? Would legalising assisted suicide remove the stigma associated with unhappiness in later life?

Given proper precautions, I agree with assisted suicide if patients request it, because their life has become physically agonising or they have developed an incurable disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. However, loneliness should never be the cause, because loneliness is definitely treatable and indeed curable. The Silver Line Helpline (0800 4 70 80 90, free, confidential, open day and night 24/7) is already transforming lives for older people who feel at last they have been linked with friends who care about them, and whom they can speak to on a regular basis.

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