WRITING from the heart about her experiences of desperate loneliness as a widowed pensioner, it was clear that Esther Rantzen had struck a chord with the public at large.

Deluged with hundreds of letters and emails in the space of just three weeks following the recent newspaper article, the seeds were sown for her latest charity vision.

And now 25 years after she founded ChildLine – a free and confidential 24-hour helpline staffed by trained volunteers for children and teenagers – she is hoping to launch a similarly revolutionary service, but this time for older people.

Christening it ‘Silverline’, Rantzen was expecting to spend this weekend mulling over the plan after holding early stage talks with a number of interested voluntary organisations yesterday.

With hopes to launch the helpline next year, Rantzen believes it could provide vital information and advice to the UK’s 12.6m army of pensioners on everything from reporting abuse and neglect, to accessing befriending services and how to use online banking.

“It would have an absolutely open agenda like ChildLine did,” says the 71-year-old TV presenter and campaigner, who splits her time between her home in Bramshaw in the New Forest and London.

“There can be issues underlying other issues and Silverline wouldn’t have any particular connotation. It wouldn’t be an abuse line, a poverty line or a disability line. It would be a line for anybody over the age of, say, 55.”

She added: “These days there are a number of different organisations offering various kinds of help on the phone. I think that if we put together a core army of volunteers, we could help people reach whatever information or help it is they need.”

However, in addition Rantzen believes that the general public at large have their part to play to help vulnerable pensioners as the economic uncertainty continues.

In Southampton, for example, many pensioners lost their day care places, after £400,000 of council funding was withdrawn back in April.

“Local councils are having to make hard choices,” said the TV star who fronted That’s Life for 21 years. “I certainly think they need to look at executive salaries in this day and age, but who is going to choose between helping children or helping old people? It’s tough.

“Because, like all the other countries in Europe, we are desperately short of funds to put in place the kind of provision and safety net that did exist.”

She said there are already a number of local volunteer projects doing great work in this area, but Rantzen believes more people need to get involved. She says currently many older people feel like they are ‘Harry Potter in his magic cloak of invisibility’.

“As your hair turns grey, you seem to fade from view,” she says.

“Whether it’s in a hospital ward, where very often the older patients somehow drop off the blotter so they may not get food, help at mealtimes or drinks, so doctors have to prescribe water.

“Or very often you find yourself at the end of every queue and other motorists get annoyed with you. It’s an odd phenomenon.”

Widowed when her husband of 23 years Desmond Wilcox passed away in 2000, Rantzen spoke out about her dreadful loneliness this summer.

Breaking a social taboo, she described how she dreaded “empty weekends” and had pressurised her daughter to move in with her.

But the response she received – ‘some expressing sympathy, others advice, but most sharing their own tales of aching isolation’ – made her aware of the scale of what she describes as an “epidemic of loneliness in Britain”.

“I think loneliness is particularly tough for older people who have lost someone either through bereavement or divorce,” she told the Daily Echo. “The comparison with the companionship they once had makes it even more painful for them.”

And it is not only loneliness that is causing concern when it comes to our pensioners.

In October a study by the Care Quality Commission revealed a fifth of National Health Service trusts were treating elderly patients so badly that they were breaking the law.

And last month a review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that basic care for hundreds of thousands of elderly people being looked after in their homes was at times “dehumanising” or cruel.

Looking to the future, Rantzen believes that Silverline will be one of a number of projects that will evolve to help combat a wealth of such problems.

She said : “Hopefully identifying a problem is one step towards solving it.”