“I felt desperate,” she says.
“I wanted to find a way to cope with the loneliness. I had never called a helpline before but I wanted any thread of support I could find.”
Through Cruse Bereavement, an organisation which offers support after the loss of a loved one, Muriel learned about Age Scotland community connecting, a free and confidential service which gives anyone over the age of 55 details of social clubs, skills training, befriending groups and community events in their area.
Muriel, who lives in South Lanarkshire, admits she had to pluck up the courage to call.
Making the first move isn’t always easy.
But now she says: “Calling Age Scotland was the best phone call I have ever made.”
“I had always wanted to find a computer class,” she says.
“But I just wanted a means of getting out and meeting other people.
"The community connecting team member also suggested a local befriending service.
"They were fantastic and made a referral on my behalf.
Huge difference to my day to day life
“I have a lot in common with my befriender and we chat away and suddenly three hours have passed.
"The community connecting service has made a huge difference to my day to day life.
I have been shown kindness and compassion and in return I feel more confident.”
Muriel is just one of tens of thousands of older people who have struggled with isolation and loneliness. It is a public health epidemic which affects people of all ages, but older people are particularly vulnerable.
Loneliness is harmful
Asking for help can be hard, especially for stoic older generations who don’t like to make a nuisance of themselves.
But suffering in silence is not the answer. Chronic loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It affects physical and mental health with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.
Margaret, from Glasgow, started to feel depressed after developing health problems. Having been active in the past she took badly to being housebound and says her mood became “quite low”.
Margaret wanted to be involved in social activities but her confidence had taken a knock because she didn’t feel as capable as she had before.
After a call to community connecting, she was given a list of local groups, some of which were just down the road from where she lived.
Someone was listening
“I was feeling quite down but they really made me feel someone was listening to me.
They followed through with everything they said they were going to do and kept in touch to see how I was getting on. It really changed me. My social life has improved and I’m just glad to have my confidence back.”
The team also helped a man in his 70s from the Borders who wanted to know about cooking classes in his area. Throughout his married life his wife had done the cooking, but since her death four years earlier, the man had lacked the confidence to cook for himself.
"He was put in touch with a group at Burnfoot Community Hub where he later reported that he learned “a few cooking tricks”.
Armed with his new skills, the man was once again able to enjoy homecooked meals.
Helen Gillon is someone who understands what it is like to feel lost after the death of a spouse.
When her husband passed away five years ago, she started spending more time at home on her own.
Originally from London, but having lived in Edinburgh for 45 years, Helen was lucky enough to have friends and family nearby.
“But I do understand what it feels like to be stuck at home alone,” she says.
Helen decided that volunteer work would help.
She signed up with Age Scotland and has been a volunteer with the community connecting team since 2018.
“I like telephone work, I am quite chatty and like talking on the phone so I thought it was work I would enjoy,” she says.
With a law degree, which she studied for in her 40s, and having worked in a children’s charity, Helen likes helping people, especially those who find themselves in a dark place.
“Some of our callers are lonely. They might be stuck in the house, not having enough social contact.
"People don’t always know where to start to get help. My job is to talk to them about their situation and about their interests. Maybe they’re after something specific, like a dance class, or they just want to meet new people in their area.
“After we’ve spoken I do some research to find out what’s on offer where they live and draw up a list of possibilities, based on what they are interested in. Once I’ve got the information I call them back and we chat through the options,” she says.
Sometimes the preliminary chat will throw up quirky solutions. One woman who Helen spoke to said she was an Elvis Presley fan. “We were chatting and she just happened to mention that she loved Elvis Presley’s music,” says Helen. “I did some research and found there was an Elvis Presley fan club. I wasn’t expecting that.”
On another occasion, Helen was talking to an elderly man, with mobility issues, who wanted to take part in more events in his community. Helen found a local monthly Sunday tea party, contacted the organisers and arranged for her caller to be picked up to go to the party and taken home again. “When I checked back in with him he sounded really perky. It was something new for him and he really liked it. He made new friends and felt more cheerful,” she says.
“This is the first voluntary job I’ve done where the contact is over the phone and not face to face. So it is important for me to establish a rapport with the person. Some people when they first start speaking sound a bit down.
"I will chat to them for a while, getting to know them and what they want to do. I ask about their health and their mobility, as that will determine what they will be able to do. Over time you can hear the difference in their tone of voice, they relax and sound happier.
“And because I am older I understand what they are going through.”
New lease of life
Connecting older people with activities they enjoy, giving them a new lease of life, is the highlight of Helen’s job.
Her biggest challenge, she says, is technology.
“But it’s good to learn new things,” she says.
“It keeps the brain active.”
Like Helen, many older people find technology difficult but are keen to try their hand at new skills. A number of callers want to access the internet, to be able to Skype family overseas.
Others are interested in walking groups, chair exercise, dancing or coffee and a chat. Helen has also helped older people who love music or film or want to hone their photography skills.
“After I have given callers information for them to try new things, I offer to call back in a week or two, to see how they are getting on. I always do that. You never want to promise to call back and not do it. I also send the information out in the post, so the person can look over it in their own time.
“I get to know the callers. I always try to remember if it’s someone’s birthday or ask about their family or ask how they are if they’ve said they have a bad back. It helps them know that they are not just a number, that I am really listening,” says Helen.
“It is very satisfying work. One thing leads to another, and older people find themselves with new hobbies and new friends. I hope that we leave them a bit more cheerful than when they made that first call. If anyone is thinking about getting in touch, or if they feel nervous, I would say just do it. Community connecting is a great thing. You never know where it will lead. Just pick up the phone.”