She first came to our attentions fronting the phenomenally successful TV programme That’s Life, went on to found children’s helpline Childline and is now at the helm of a charity to help older people. Tina Lofthouse meets Esther Rantzen…
In November, Dame Esther Rantzen will be coming to the Roehampton Club to give a keynote speech about a cause very much close to her heart – that of ageing and how to tackle the loneliness that often accompanies it. While she is still very much active, fit and busy, she has spoken openly about the loneliness she felt when she was widowed. Following on from her success with Childline, she decided to set up The Silver Line to provide support and companionship for older people.
Organised by the Really Helpful Club, the event aims to highlight the challenges that increased life expectancy brings and how we as individuals and society can prepare for it, with a particular emphasis on those in the ‘sandwich generation’ who find they are looking after children as well as an elderly relative.
Sitting down to discuss the event with Sarah Austin, founder of the Really Helpful Club, and Dame Esther, they both point to how much society has changed.
It is expected that men and women both want to work and play a part in parenting but it is a juggle, particularly when looking after an ageing parent becomes part of the equation.
Previous generations had clearer roles as well as extended families that could support each other. Says Dame Esther: “My mother was a very clever woman and, while she did charity work, she never had a full-time job. She made a life so that she had time for her three sisters and her mother. And when my father got home from work, she would pour him a sherry and get his slippers out. It sounds very Victorian now.”
Today’s pressures of modern life can lead to the elderly parent falling to the lowest priority. The Silver Line offers a lifeline. “The people who call often use the words ‘burden’ and ‘busy’,” explains Dame Esther. “They don’t want to be a burden, their children are busy, the neighbours are busy, everyone in the shops are so busy…”
There are small things that people can do in their daily lives that can really make a difference. “I’ve changed how I relate to older people in the street,” says Dame Esther. “They don’t make eye contact as they don’t expect people will have the time to say hello. Now I will make eye contact, I will start a conversation, in the knowledge that it might be the only one they will have that day.”
There is also help and support out there for the older person, which can give them back a sense of purpose that they have perhaps lost when they retire or are no longer looking after dependants. “There is the University of the Third Age, for example, where experts share skills and people can learn about new topics. Volunteering is also a good way to be part of a team again.”
But, as Dame Esther acknowledges, it is not easy, particularly for those in poor health, or who are battling the impact of loss, whether that is of a partner, a job, or even a driving licence. “You have to force yourself to muster the confidence to go to events and fill your life with new experiences,” she says. Dame Esther was widowed in 2000, after a 23-year marriage to the broadcaster Desmond Wilcox. His death left her devastated, and lonely. It is not something you can ever get over but she says she has a motto: “If you can’t get over it, get around it.”
“I’ve changed how I relate to older people in the street,” says Dame Esther. “They don’t make eye contact as they don’t expect people will have the time to say hello. Now I will make eye contact, I will start a conversation, in the knowledge that it might be the only one they will have that day.”
Living life to the full
She clearly tries to live by her motto. The day after our interview is Dame Esther’s 78th birthday. She is still actively involved in Childline, as well as The Silver Line, and is due to head to South Africa for work. She has three children, and five grandchildren, and is set to celebrate her birthday with the help of two of her grandsons, who live nearby.
“I’m already planning my game of hide and seek with the three-year-old. It’s a relationship that gives us both so much pleasure.” She stresses the importance of the role of grandparents not only within the family but also the value of older people in society. “Without them, the voluntary sector would keel over. With Childline, I love it when we have older counsellors talking to children. They have life experience and time to listen.”
And yet older people are often sidelined, as many of the heartbreaking calls to The Silver Line reveal. Loneliness is an epidemic, and is particularly prevalent among the elderly. According to the charity, loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more dangerous than obesity.
Bad press for older people
Tackling this epidemic is something that the late MP Jo Cox fought for, and it was recently announced that the government will allocate £20m to charities and groups that aim to help end loneliness. Dame Esther hopes it will be a pot that The Silver Line can tap into. “The Big Lottery Fund gave us a grant for the first five years but that runs out in the autumn,” says Dame Esther. “And it is hard to get people to donate to charities for the elderly. They are seen as the equity-rich baby boomers and get blamed for a great deal such as bed-blocking and house-blocking.”
She believes that the problem is a lack of appropriate housing for elderly people. “They stay in the family house which is expensive to run and not always safe. There are lovely retirement villages but they are mainly for the active elderly and those that can afford it. We need to think more carefully about the kinds of housing we offer older people, and we can then free up family housing for families.”
Dame Esther has downsized into an apartment in a leafy part of north west London. “There is now a family in my old family home and I’m very pleased.” The apartment may be more modest in size but it has stunning views over London and a roof terrace, where Dame Esther tends to her plants. “I was lucky to find it. I know it is not ideal as it has stairs. But I could get a stair lift if I ever need to. When my daughter was very ill we had one and my mother would go up and down like a duchess on it. It looked great fun.”
At 77, she looks like she won’t be needing any such thing any time soon. She radiates positivity and energy, and appreciates the fact that she is in the lucky group of older people able to enjoy being active. She describes this group as being in denial that anything bad will happen. And yet the death of close friends is a constant reminder of their own mortality. “Two close friends died recently. On a sunny day like today I think how nice it would be to go for a walk with them, or phone and talk about a play I saw last night. And this is not going to get better.”
Even so, her own life is one she can look back on and be proud of what she has achieved (she was recognised with not only an OBE, but also a CBE and a DBE). But Dame Esther still admits to some regrets. “Bill Cotton, who was a brilliant TV executive, invited me to apply for the position of controller of BBC1. And there had never been a woman controller before. Desi [Desmond] said I wouldn’t enjoy it as I like actually doing the work rather than enabling others to do the work. He was right and it would have been full-on, and I don’t know if I could have carried on with Childline as well, but I feel a total wimp at having decided not to apply.”
Life can take you on different paths, but ultimately Dame Esther is happy with the one she took. She adds: “I’ve taken a less travelled road for my generation and that has made a big difference to my life.”