In her 2017 TEDMED Talk, The Silver Line CEO Sophie Andrews speaks about how the best way to help another person is often just by being an empathetic listener. We caught up with Sophie to learn more about her efforts to foster human connections as a means to provide social connectivity for isolated senior citizens in the UK.
TEDMED: You begin your TEDMED Talk by sharing your personal story as a victim, and ultimately a survivor, of abuse. You turned to self-harm and other destructive behaviors as a way of coping. What would you say to someone who is suffering and doesn’t know where to turn?
SOPHIE: I’d say that you may not see it at the time but there is “life after…” and even though it will seem like there is no way out, there will be. Someone once said to me that nothing really bad or really good ever lasts forever and it’s true. Which means that you can survive and see the other side and there is help out there, although I realise more than most people that it’s hard to see the help at the time. I guess you need to be ready for the help to be able to receive it properly and that can take some time.
TEDMED: As a teenager, you relied on a helpline in a time of personal crisis, and you credit the service with saving your life. As an adult, you founded a hotline service, The Silver Line, for lonely senior citizens. In your opinion, what makes hotlines such a special form of support for people?
SOPHIE: For me it was the fact it was 24/7 and confidential—desperation doesn’t fit around a 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday timetable. Plus I wanted to be believed and trusted and to still feel that I was in control. And the support I received, and the support The Silver Line provides, offers that.
TEDMED: What types of topics are your callers looking to discuss, and what trends are you noticing with the calls you are receiving?
SOPHIE: Significant loss—partner, loss of driving license, loss of mobility, loss of confidence—are all factors that can lead to social isolation. We are receiving increasing numbers of calls at night and weekends when other services are closed. Plus mental health issues, particularly overnight, when statutory services can’t cope with demand.
TEDMED: The people calling into the Silver Line are often suffering from feelings of sadness and isolation, but there also seems to also be a lot of joy on these calls and group chats. Can you share a story from a Silver Line caller that always makes you smile or laugh?
SOPHIE: I love the group calls where people talk about shared interests— we so often forget that for many people having a conversation with more than one person at a time is a rare occurrence. My favourite group is the music group where people actually play musical instruments down the phone to each other. There is a real sense of belonging amongst the group and lots of laughter of course!
TEDMED: In addition to the empathetic ear that Silver Line provides, what other services are needed in order to improve the lives of older individuals suffering from social isolation?
SOPHIE: It doesn’t have to be complicated—it really is about simple human connection. Technology has a part to play in modern life but there is a tipping point where technology can sometimes replace the human connection. How often do we send an email or SMS message rather than picking up the phone or visiting someone? I don’t necessarily think that we need new services—we just need to look out for each other a bit more!
TEDMED: The UK is taking loneliness and social isolation seriously, with funding and increased national attention including the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. Does the Silver Line have plans to work with this ministerial office? And, what would you say to someone who said loneliness wasn’t a public health problem?
SOPHIE: We are members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness which includes the new Minister for Loneliness. We speak with over 10,000 older people each week, so have an important part to play in terms of representing the voice of the older person and influencing at a national level. Loneliness is a public health problem because the cost of loneliness in terms of impact on health is proven and the impacts can be devastating (including increased incidence of chronic conditions and increased mortality rates). It is a problem that is potentially going to affect us all.
TEDMED: What are your predictions regarding the future of social isolation? As more people live longer, will they grow more isolated, or are we moving towards a more connected society for these populations?
SOPHIE: I worry that we are becoming less connected—social media gives a false perception of the number of friends we have and also sets expectations that everyone around us is somehow more popular as the information is visible for all to see. Yet in reality we are speaking to each other less and less, despite all the social media connections. The combination of an aging population and less social connection is a worrying one. We need to plan now for our retirements and think wider than just the financial planning—we need to plan ahead and invest in people and relationships now, outside of our work lives, so we have those strong investments in relationships for the future.
TEDMED: What was the TEDMED experience like for you? What advice would you have for a future Speaker?
SOPHIE: Terrifying! Exhilarating! Life changing! I’d recommend that you do it…if you are lucky enough to be asked. It’s a fantastic opportunity. I felt very supported and the people I met through the experience will always be remembered…and I’m keeping in touch with many of them too. Thank you for the opportunity.