Many elderly people feel lonelier than ever during Christmas and New Year's. Now a new telephone hotline in Berlin is offering a sympathetic ear during the holidays. Founder Elke Schilling talked to DW about the project.
DW: Christmastime is family time — but not for everyone. Many people find the days between Christmas Eve and New Year especially depressing. Lonely senior citizens in Berlin can now call the Silbernetz telephone line if they feel stuck at home and miserable over the holidays. The hotline opened on Christmas Eve, and it remains open until January 1. Why these dates?
Elke Schilling: There's no time of year when loneliness is on people's minds as much as the Christmas holidays. It's the darkest and most depressing season. It's publicly decreed to be "family time:" Everyone is being sociable, kind, giving each other presents. This is presented as normal. And then you have someone who's sitting alone at home — an old woman, for example, who told us that her daughter lives in the Netherlands, and her granddaughter doesn't keep in contact with her, either. She said, "I think I'm going to die and I won't have any contact with them again." That's terribly painful — being so cut off, and the impossibility of renewing the contact. Loneliness is always terrible, but public awareness about it is at its peak at this time of year.
What sort of callers have you had?
Generally speaking they're older people — 70 years old and upwards, on average. One woman who called — she was over 70, too — wanted to let off steam, and was ranting nonstop. In the end even she had to laugh at herself. I think when people are just sitting alone at home they often go round in circles, and a lot of pressure can build up. On the first day, an elderly man tried to call from a cellphone. After I told him we couldn't take calls from cellphones, he actually went out to a payphone — to tell us from there about all the bad stuff that had happened to him over the past 30 years. He was abandoned by his children, had had bad experiences with various authorities, and had to endure several illnesses. Now he knew he didn't have much longer to live. It was obvious he had no one he could offload all this onto.
How does Silbernetz differ from a telephone counseling helpline?
I worked on a telephone counseling helpline for many years. I really appreciate the work of my colleagues there. But I also know that loneliness is not the main theme for the telephone helpline. In our society, loneliness is often seen as something that's your own fault. It's a taboo that people tend not to talk about, which is why we're addressing it directly. I've also been a senior citizens' representative here in Berlin for six years now. During that time I've been studying age and the corollaries of age very intensively. At least every third elderly person complains at least occasionally of loneliness. Their social networks start to thin; relatives, acquaintances and friends die.
I had a very personal experience of it, too. I moved into my apartment seven years ago, and I had a nice elderly neighbor who liked to help me around the apartment. At some point he just seemed to have disappeared. Then there was a pizza flyer hanging on the door of his flat for three weeks. That was when I started asking around. After endless back-and-forth with the police and the apartment management people, he was finally carried out of his apartment. By that point he'd been dead for three months.
I'd offered him help, and he'd refused. That's not unusual; if someone's sliding into loneliness, neighbors are often just too close. And that's why many people don't accept their help. So the telephone, with its anonymity, is exactly the right instrument for expressing oneself, being heard, finding someone you can talk to. That's how the service came about.
I'm not the one who invented Silbernetz, though: The Silverline Helpline has existed in England for four years now. I looked at the initiative three-and-a-half years ago in London, and thought: We need something like that here in Germany. Silbernetz is similar to the British Silverline — there are three stages to it. First, there's a round-the-clock telephone helpline. Then via the helpline we can link people to Silbernetz friends. These are volunteers who call once a week and build up a personal connection. And then through this personal connection they can help people start to take steps to ease their loneliness. They can let them know about suitable activities in their part of town — there are more of these than old people tend to be aware of.
The people answering the phone at Silbernetz are volunteers. What can I expect when I ring up?
They're people who work in the social service sector, and who can offer a lot of empathy and interest. They're also trained in how to respond to the topics that might crop up in a conversation with old and lonely people. They're able to listen sympathetically and coax someone into talking. They're able to receive conversations that could be emotionally burdensome in such a way that both sides are nonetheless left feeling good.
For now, the project is limited to Berlin. Are there plans to extend it?
If we succeed in getting it on its feet here in Berlin, we want to extend the project to other German states as well. Also, Berlin isn't a typical place when it comes to loneliness. Since setting up the project, I've also reached out to rural areas. I've been told that there's a much greater need for it there. We do have different social structures in the countryside, but we also have a hell of a lot of loneliness — particularly as we're losing the supply structures, they're thinning out. Conversations and tips are therefore at least as important there as they are in Berlin.
Elke Schilling, 73, is the project manager and founder of Silbernetz. The project is initially focused on senior citizens in Berlin, with the aim of subsequently expanding it to other regions. The project is being scientifically monitored by the Alice Salomon University in Berlin.