Deirdre McGovern loves a nice garden. These days, however, she does not get much of a chance to work on her own.
She has a “gammy foot”, she says. “It’s holding me up, it’s limiting. I love gardening, but you need two legs to garden.”
Independent by nature — a doer, she says — for most of her 86 years of life, McGovern now finds herself somewhat inhibited by her leg.
Also, her husband of 61 years, Patrick, is in a nursing home. “That’s another kind of a drawback. There’s nobody here,” she says.
Nobody, that is, bar her small dachshund, Bobby.
“He’s brown and he’s lovely and I love him to bits,” says McGovern. “And he thinks I’m great too, which is nice … I often think if the dog could make a cup of tea, that would be great. He would if he could.”
But Bobby can’t, and after some recent encouragement from a friend, McGovern reached out to the NGO ALONE at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
From mid-March to September, ALONE’s national support line got more than 30,900 calls in, and staff and volunteers made more than 166,600 calls out, says a spokesperson.
In Dublin during that time, there were 6,909 calls from or to the national support line. Of those, 2,051 calls were from first-timers like Deirdre McGovern.
The impact of loneliness on older people is well-researched.
“Older adults who lived alone had a higher risk of social isolation than those who lived with others,” says a report from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) published in October 2019.
Social isolation was associated with “poorer self-rated health, functional limitations, poorer quality of life, and depressive symptomology”, the study found.
With lockdown, and many cocooning, loneliness among older people has worsened, says Sean Moynihan, CEO of ALONE.
“There’s a group of older people for whom what happened was they may have been a bit cut off or lonely or needing support,” he says. “What coronavirus meant was they had to reach out for that support for the first time.”
Moynihan and his team face a challenge, too, maintaining social links with older people seeking support, while sticking to social-distancing guidelines.
That meant garden visits, patio visits, and ring-arounds, he says.“We had to organise a workaround because we can’t leave people to struggle.”
There should be a community service for social needs, says Helen Fitzgerald, a regional coordinator for Sage Advocacy, an organisation that advocates for vulnerable adults, older people, and healthcare patients.
People call their GP if they’re sick, or their public health nurse. “[What about] resources for if you are lonely in the community?” says Fitzgerald, who did her psychology master’s thesis on combating loneliness in older people.
Moynihan agrees. “We really need to build a system that is more focused on providing healthcare, support, combating loneliness within the community,” he says.
“Not just providing medical services in a queue in hospitals and nursing homes,” he says.
McGovern said she was reluctant to reach out at first, fearing further loss of independence. But she now enjoys the conversations she has with volunteers.
“Somebody started to ring me every week. Still do. Nice people. Could be from anywhere in the country, and we talk about dogs if they have a dog,” she says. “You know, just a chat.”
Brian Rothery and Carley Minchin, too, have formed an unusual friendship.
Rothery, 86, is twice Minchin’s age, and the pair lead different lives. Minchin is an accountant. Rothery, a retired journalist.
They met when they were matched by ALONE.
“I guess I was always brought up to try and give back when you can and if you can,” says Minchin on her decision to volunteer.
She signed up, did an intro course with ALONE, and was paired with Rothery. They soon bonded.
When they met, Rothery’s life had undergone a massive change. He had lost his sight and had to move from the fairly remote farmhouse in Wexford, to a granny flat next to his daughter’s home in south Dublin.
“I could no longer see the food in my fridge and I could no longer go out into the yard,” he says. “If I went out into my yard in Wexford, and I turned in the wrong direction, I wouldn’t know where I was.”
The granny flat was fitted with panic buttons and a phone for Rothery to reach his daughter. But he still had concerns, he says. “I was saying to myself, ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’”
Rothery reached out to the local public health service, who set him up with a carer, meals on wheels – and put him in touch with ALONE.
Minchin and Rothery met weekly in person at first. With the lockdown, they switched to Zoom.
Rothery has gotten to know Minchin’s kids through Zoom.
“The way his face lights up the minute he hears one of my kids come near the computer. He knows which voice is which,” says Minchin. “My daughter started ballet and he’d be like, ‘How did you get on?’
Says Rothery: “I know all about her children. I know the ages of them, I know exactly what they’re doing. It keeps me in touch with the world.”
More needs to be done to help older people get set up with technology, says Minchin. It might be a way to link in with people in more remote places, she says.
Fitzgerald says some older people might be reluctant to engage with new technology. “But with a pandemic, that might change.”
Minchin says older people simply need to be taught about technology.
Minchin helps Rothery with his podcasts, which he posts regularly on Spotify and YouTube, and with his pitches to RTÉ and other broadcasters.
Rothery, in return, has helped Minchin re-evaluate a poem she had studied, and hated, for the Leaving Cert: “Paradise Lost”.
Minchin has found a confidante in her friend too. “If I had an issue or a problem, that I wasn’t sure who to talk to, I’d 100 percent tell Brian.”