Loneliness is fast becoming an unseen disease of our society. Families are more spread out geographically and can lead busier lives so many of us find ourselves alone far too much.

One leading global expert from America, John Cacioppo, has been studying the effect of loneliness on the brain and our biology for more than 20 years.

He claims being lonely can increase our chances of dying prematurely by as much as 45 per cent – more than air pollution, obesity and addiction to alcohol.

His research suggests we are made to be a social species, it’s embedded in our genetic make-up and being ‘outside’ or ‘on the fringes’ of society is simply bad for our health.

He said: “We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality.”

When I was a child, I walked past my grandparents’ home on the way back from secondary school, so I often called in for a chat and a cup of tea at least twice every week during term time. I felt guilty about ‘walking on by’.

I continued to do this even after my grandad died, right up until I lost my gran in 1984.

However, my own children don’t have this opportunity. Their grandparents live more than 100 miles away, so popping in for a chat isn’t an option. Whose fault is that? Is it anybody’s?

How many families in Wiltshire are like mine? How many people are lonely and isolated, regardless of their age?

Margaret Pigg certainly believes our modern society is one reason why so many people are lonely and socially isolated today.

The 70-year-old, who lives in Devizes, spends much of her week being a friend to people in Wiltshire who spend many hours alone, day in, day out.

Margaret, retired herself, has chosen to do something about it and volunteers with Age UK Wiltshire after moving to the county in 2010.

“When I was in Kent, I volunteered for Age UK and when we came to Wiltshire I thought I’d apply to be a volunteer to continue that work,” she said. “I was doing some office work for the organisation and was quite happy when I was asked if I would consider doing some befriending.”

Margaret doesn’t live alone herself. She’s married to David, and is a mum and grandmother.

At first Margaret befriended an older lady who lived in Trowbridge. She travelled to see her each week by bus.

“I visited her for a long time and I really enjoyed it. I still visit her now. She was a lovely lady, probably rather depressed and she didn’t really know what she wanted out of a new friendship with me.

“I was later asked to visit another 86-year-old lady in the same town and I still do. We try to get out and about together and my husband sometimes volunteers for me – as she uses a wheelchair – and we go out to a garden centre or shopping so she can enjoy an outing.

“Together we just talk in general about things. I think of her as a friend and I really enjoy spending time with her. I get a lot of pleasure out of visiting her. I like to find out about her life and what life was like when she was younger.

“We both like knitting so we knit together and she likes crochet too. We both like reading and we talk about that. She’s got a son so we talk about our families. She’s not a well lady, so sometimes we talk about how she’s feeling.”

Recently Margaret has decided to start befriending another lady, in her nineties, who has limited sight and who has just lost her only daughter.

“This lady has two grandchildren but neither live locally. I visit her every other week and we’re still getting to know each other.”

Margaret also does telephone befriending for the charity each Friday where she phones people who just want someone to call up for a chat and a catch-up on their week.

“Every person I telephone is grateful for the call. It might be the only conversation they have all week. It doesn’t matter if a conversation lasts a few minutes or 20 minutes.

“Every person is different. I have one lady who isn’t particularly chatty and is rarely on the phone for more than four minutes, but she is happy for the contact with me.”

For Margaret being a befriender is about being willing to chat; being cheerful; being willing to listen and being willing to adapt to different personalities.

“Having a befriender can make such a difference to an older person’s life,” she added.

“People don’t realise that it increases social contact, can highlight problems in someone’s life such as health or issues around finances and paying bills. A befriender can then refer someone on for further support.

“It’s also worth families understanding the kind of work done by Age UK Wiltshire.

“The charity will support people over the age of 55, so if you’ve got elderly parents and you are worried about them, the advice is there.

“And for older people who are active volunteering can help ease loneliness.

“Become a befriender yourself. It increases your social circle and gives you something to do. If you are a person who can get out and about and you feel lonely, there are others who need you.”

Fact file

  • Age UK Wiltshire needs morebefrienders who can devote between three and 12 hours each month.
  • It currently helps more than 170 people through befriending but there’s a waiting list.
  • To find out more call (01380) 727767, visit http://bit.ly/1q5D0wC or visit Age UK Wiltshire, 13 Market Place, Devizes, SN10 1HT.
  • Another useful website is http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org
  • A 2013 talk on ‘the lethality of loneliness’ by John Cacioppo is at http://bit.ly/1hKliuM