AGE campaigners say they are shocked at the number of elderly people who suffer loneliness in silence.

A staggering 100,000 pensioners have made calls in just six months to the 24-hour Lancashire-based service The Silver Line.

Now celebrity campaigner Esther Rantzen is demanding that the shocking statistics act as a ‘wake-up call’.

It comes just months after Esther was moved to visit a Blackburn widow who was struggling with isolation.

Esther, who founded The Silver Line charity, took an hour out of her very busy schedule to spend time at 80-year-old Irene Newington’s home. Mrs Newington had been without her husband for a year and was almost blind due to a degenerative eye condition.

Now the veteran TV host says she has been stunned at the numbers showing roughly one pensioner every three minutes seeking someone to speak to.

Local age campaigners also called for action. Darwen councillor Paul Browne said he had been shocked at how often he encountered the problem.

He said: “It’s absolutely awful how common it is. Some of the people who are in homes are lonely – that’s how chronic an issue it is.

“It’s something we must do something about because a kind word is an easy thing to give out. Sometimes I say hello to people in passing on the street and I feel sorry for those who don’t answer.

“We need more places like Derwent Hall in Darwen where people can go for company and get a meal for peanuts. It’s a fabulous place.”

Tasneem Khamker, manager of Accrington’s Age UK store, has given away free hugs in the street to raise awareness of the problem.

Launching her latest in-store event, she said: “We do it to raise awareness of a lot of social isolation, and isolation in general among elderly people and how we aim to combat it.

“We want people to check on any elderly relatives or neighbours who live alone to make sure they're OK, see if any help is required and give them some company.”

Esther, 73, said: “This has to be a wake-up call because this is, and will continue to be, a huge ongoing issue.

“I have unearthed a huge problem. It is very distressing but that is why everyone needs to act.”

Today she is due to lay bare the true scale of the problem to an invited-only audience at The Royal Society of Medicine in London.

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