The Scottish Government annually provides £140,000 to fund the charity’s helpline.
However, recognising the important role it would play in helping the elderly through the lockdown, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a further £80,000 of funding – to help the charity meet demand.
She announced the cash injection during a visit to the charity’s Edinburgh office on March 18, just days prior to the lockdown.
And it couldn’t come quickly enough for staff, who have now been set up to take calls from home.
A major operation, under normal circumstances that may have taken months to co-ordinate but call centre staff were working from home within a week.
They are now fielding an ever-growing number of calls from older people across the country.
The government funding provided the new equipment required to allow staff to work from home and deal with an increase in calls from around 100 per day to 1500.
Nicola Sturgeon said: “In these challenging times, when we are faced with a pandemic to which older people are especially vulnerable, Age Scotland’s helpline is providing an invaluable service.
“As older people are advised to reduce their social contacts to protect themselves from COVID-19, the staff here are a lifeline to those seeking practical advice or just a friendly chat.
“I am delighted this extra funding from the Scottish Government will help make this service available to many more people.”
The helpline had already been receiving far more calls than usual but staff are preparing for even more in the coming weeks – and are prepared to be there for those who need them most.
Adam Stachura, head of policy and communications, is confident that the team will meet the demand.
He said: “Our free helpline – 0800 12 44 222 – usually receives around 100 calls per day. It provides information, advice and friendship for older people across Scotland.
“We normally help 20,000 people every year, aged 50 and over, with a whole range of issues, from benefits to social care, power of attorney to veterans’ rights and legal issues to local groups.
“When reports started coming through about people aged 70 and over being at most risk from this virus, we knew we’d be dealing with more calls.
“One of the other things we do is community support, enabling 750 older people’s groups and associations across Scotland – many of which started to close their doors as the national advice about social distancing started to roll out.
“That freed up staff who usually work in the community, giving us the capability to train more people to take phone calls.
“Our chief executive, Brian Sloan, realised we’d need to create a virtual call centre, allowing staff to answer the phones from home and minimise their risk from the virus too.
“Thanks to the Scottish Government funding, we were able to do that in the space of a week – it would usually take months to organise such a major operational change but we knew we had to act quickly.
“It funded infrastructure costs to enable us all to work remotely; without that, it would have been really difficult for us to do.
“We’re very grateful the Scottish Government quickly recognised that we had a unique role to play in supporting older people in Scotland, offering information and advice as well as reassurance.
“Up until recently, we only had around eight members of staff working on the helpline – those numbers have increased greatly as other members of staff have been freed up to help.
“The call volume has also increased dramatically and almost all are exclusively coronavirus related.”
Even in the age of social media, the telephone helpline remains a lifeline for many as it is estimated that 500,000 people aged over 60 in Scotland do not use the internet.
However, for those that do, Age Scotland has also been busy compiling an easy-to-read guide for older people worried about COVID-19 at www.age.scot/coronavirus.
The organisation also has a database of more than 70 guides which offer advice on a range of other issues too, all of which can be posted out.
While staff are busy handling hundreds of calls every day, an army of volunteers has also been hard at work – making friendship calls to older people who are isolated as a result of the lockdown.
Adam said: “Our staff are there to provide a listening ear and reassurance.
“Older people are often isolated in their local communities but given the current lockdown, that has been exacerbated.
“So our call handlers are referring people on who may benefit from a friendly call from one of our volunteers.
“Our community connectivity service usually links older people up with services they may be interested in within their area – everything from Men’s Sheds to an Elvis Presley Appreciation Society – to help tackle loneliness.
“However, it’s not possible to do that just now as people adhere to the advice to stay home and stay safe.
“So we needed to find a way to ensure that older people have someone to talk to – just a friendly voice on the other end of the phone so they don’t feel so alone.
“That service has also been scaled up at a rate of knots.”
However, it’s the helpline which has witnessed the most demand.
Adam explained: “We usually handle up to 100 calls each day; yesterday we took more than 700.
“The government has tasked us with answering up to 1500 calls per day as the lockdown continues – that’s 15 times our usual capacity.
“However, we’re scaling up to do that now because we want and need to be there for the older people of Scotland in what is a very difficult time for many of them.”
With no firm date in sight for the end of the lockdown, Age Scotland is bracing itself for anxiety levels to rise too.
Adam added: “Everyone who calls in is anxious about the current situation.
“They’re all worried about different things – underlying health conditions, how to get food and medicine when they can’t leave the house or fears about becoming ill and no-one realising it.
“Our advisers are on the end of the phone to help signpost them to services in their area that can help.
“Our website has also had ten to 15 times more traffic than usual.
“That shows how much people trust us to provide the support they need just now and we will be there for them for as long as this continues.”
For more information, visit www.ageuk.org.uk/scotland. The helpline is available on 0800 12 44 222, Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
Working in partnership with The Silver Line
In November 2012, Esther Rantzen launched a pilot project The Silver Line, a helpline dedicated to providing support for older people living with loneliness and social isolation.
It has received in excess of 2.5 million calls since.
Around 1500 people per day contact the helpline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
That helpline now works hand in hand with Age UK and Age Scotland to offer support to older people across the UK.
Paul Goulden, The Silver Line’s director, said: “We joined forces last year as we were looking for the best way forward to continue the service in the face of rising costs.”
It’s perhaps serendipitous as it has been crucial in providing the additional support older people are now looking for, no matter where they live in the UK.
The Silver Line has witnessed a 30 per cent increase in calls in the last three weeks alone.
Usually, the Blackpool-based call centre fields enquiries but these are now being dealt with by staff working safely from home.
Paul said: “Our confidential helpline is open round the clock to offer a listening ear to people and our call handlers are trained to provide emotional support and comfort.
“We also have more than 2000 volunteers who provide weekly friendship calls. Each pair is matched on their interests so someone in Aberdeenshire could be speaking to someone down in Cornwall.
“Their common interest is the most important thing as it gives them something to talk about.
“Sometimes that call is the only contact an older person has with the outside world – so it’s even more important now.”
The charity also runs Silver Circle groups which link up groups of people with similar interests on a regular conference call – be they veterans or seafarers.
Last year, The Silver Line supported 300,000 calls from vulnerable older people. In Scotland, it has 84 volunteers who support 92 older people.
For more information, call The Silver Line on 0800 4 70 80 90 or visit www.thesilverline.org.uk.