The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Radio host about lonely 95-year-old caller: ‘We’ve all got a Bill in our lives.’

Radio host Alex Dyke with fan Bill Palmer (Credit: BBC Radio Solent)

British radio host Alex Dyke heard his grandfather on the other end of the line.

Of course it wasn’t. His grandfather died at 88 years old almost a decade ago. But the older man who called the show to talk about love and loneliness reminded Dyke of his beloved grandfather.

And he imagines many of the listeners around the world whose own heart strings tugged listening to the emotional 95-year-old Bill Palmer this week had a similar experience.

On Wednesday, Palmer, who lives alone, called his favorite BBC radio show during a segment on finding love later in life. He spoke of his wife, a friend of 30 years who he only married a year ago. She’s now living in a home with dementia and he misses her terribly. His story was picked up worldwide, including by The Washington Post. He’ll be featured on the national BBC evening television broadcast Friday evening.

[‘I feel so alone’: 95-year-old man calls into radio show to talk about missing his wife]

Dyke invited this Post reporter on his show Friday morning to briefly discuss his, and others’, strong reactions to Palmer’s story.

“There is a Bill on every street, on every road … (the world is) full of guys and ladies like Bill who once probably had very active social lives and were busy and now sit around waiting for the postman to knock on the door with a parcel just so they can have a little bit of company,” Dyke said.

After Palmer called, Dyke sent a car to bring him on for the remainder of the program. He said Palmer was in “awe” when he came to the studio, and could not believe the station had gone to such trouble for him.

For Dyke, it was a small effort. For Palmer, it was an incredible gift.

Loneliness in the elderly is common. Several studies have linked these feelings of isolation to depression and to higher risks of other serious health problems like dementia and high blood pressure. Many older people live alone like Palmer. While he visits his wife in the home daily and talks on the phone with his son nightly, he’s mostly alone with his own thoughts.

The Campaign to End Loneliness, a nonprofit in London, works to raise awareness around isolation of older people. The group in a January 2015 report determined that 10 percent, or one million people over 65 years old, in the UK are chronically lonely. It stresses the need for communities to identify individuals who might be lonely, and reach out to engage them. Some risk factors for loneliness include: lack of transportation, loss of mobility, sensory loss, bereavement.

And loneliness does not just manifest in older people when they live alone. A 2012 study by University of California San Francisco found that 43 percent of elderly people felt lonely, but only 18 percent of them lived alone.

“A lot of your friends, maybe your partner are gone, your way of life has changed so much, and you remember a time that a lot of people don’t remember,” Dyke said. “All those strands in possible conversation break down a bit.”

The tremendous response to Palmer’s story – cards are pouring in for him from all over – initially surprised Dyke, but he understands why it was so strong.

“The reason the story has gone worldwide is because … no matter what language you speak, no matter what your faith or religion is,” he said, “we’ve all got a Bill in our lives.”

Want more inspiring news and ideas to improve your life? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.

If you liked this story on Inspired Life, you may also enjoy:

Researchers used Holocaust survivors’ memories to track  how our brains process gratitude

He loves to laugh and other lessons for a long, beautiful life from Dick Van Dyke

This town’s extraordinary response to a little boy’s fatal prognosis