A few days ago an elderly lady was discovered in her flat in Bournemouth. She had been dead for six years.

Only when a creditor sent bailiffs to try to extract money from her was her body discovered. She had apparently died from natural causes all alone.

The deceased lady’s neighbours are quoted as expressing guilt at doing nothing to investigate why she had not been seen for so many years. This is an extreme example of how it is possible for someone living alone to suffer loneliness and isolation to a degree that becomes a danger.

My voluntary work brings me into contact with a large number of elderly folk spread right across the west of England and, in particular, I have been made aware of the work done by day centres, church groups, pensioners’ associations and similar organisations that provide an opportunity for social contact with people who live alone.

It has filled me with admiration for the work done by the people who run these organisations.

My experiences have encouraged me to look a little more deeply into the problem of loneliness.

This has caused me to discover that in very recent years psychologists and welfare experts have started to recognise just how serious is the problem of social isolation.

In fact, one American study has actually tried to quantify this by coming to the conclusion that someone suffering from loneliness can have their life expectancy reduced by as much as 14 per cent. Put simply, our brains are wired to need the stimulation of positive and meaningful contact with other human beings and if we don’t have this our health and well-being will probably suffer.

The broadcaster, Esther Rantzen CBE, made a success of starting the charity ChildLine and, in my opinion, should have been made Dame Esther for this brilliant initiative. Esther was widowed in 2000 and has now turned her attention to the problems of loneliness.

Having suffered from it herself and said that she felt stigmatised by the isolation imposed by widowhood, Esther has now set up a new charity called Silver Line.

The purpose of the charity is to provide a telephone chat line to anyone, irrespective of age, that provides an opportunity to talk to someone if they are having problems with loneliness. There is no set agenda to such telephone chats and the purpose is simply to befriend the lonely by means of telecommunications.

Calling Silver Line on 0800 4 70 80 90 is free.

Of course, the method used by this new charity is not unique. For example Age UK has been providing a similar telephone befriending service for many years.

I am sure it is recognised by those running these charitable services for the lonely that it is important to avoid becoming nosey and intrusive in other people’s lives while trying to relieve loneliness.

There is a moral obligation on us all to be good neighbours and to watch out for opportunities to be a friend to someone who is lonely, but in doing so, we should try to avoid making a nuisance of ourselves. Most people value their independence and we need to recognise the importance of respecting this while offering support and friendship to someone living alone.

The lonely demise of that poor lady in Bournemouth should act as a wake-up call to us all. We should ask ourselves if we know of anyone who would appreciate a phone call from us, a visit or perhaps an invitation to visit us.

As Esther Rantzen discovered, loneliness can come upon you suddenly and affects people of every class, gender and age.