‘We spent quite a bit of time talk­ing about older peo­ple rather than to older peo­ple’

The GAA’s most over-qual­i­fied water­boy and NUIG pro­fes­sor on why the well-mean­ing de­sire to help those over 70 was some­times clumsy dur­ing lock­down

The Irish Times - - Sports - Malachy Clerkin

Back around the mid­dle of May, the thought oc­curred that it might be an in­ter­est­ing time to check in with Ea­mon O’Shea. Known chiefly in these pages as ei­ther coach or man­ager of var­i­ous Tip­per­ary hurl­ing teams, he mas­quer­aded as both the most over- and un­der-qual­i­fied wa­ter-boy in last year’s cham­pi­onship, fre­quently for­get­ting his bot­tle in his haste to ad­vise play­ers dur­ing matches. In real life, though, he’s an NUIG eco­nomics pro­fes­sor whose area of ex­per­tise is age­ing, geron­tol­ogy and so­cial pol­icy.

Ear­lier that week in May, peo­ple over 70 years old had been fi­nally al­lowed out for walks but nt is what we’re after. I al­ways think of hurl­ing as a lan­guage, a nar­ra­tive that goes on par­al­lel to all our other nar­ra­tives. It has its own spe­cial ring for me any­way be­cause we talk so much about it. And that kind of ab­sence as well, you al­most have to re­learn lit­tle bits of it.

“In both good times and bad, they are in­nately con­nected with peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of the day to day rou­tine of life, the al­most ba­nal­i­ties of life. In some senses, the ba­nal­i­ties of life are life it­self. We talk about ba­nal­i­ties as if you could take them away and some­thing mag­i­cal would turn up to re­place them.

“But for the ma­jor­ity of your life, noth­ing mag­i­cal turns up. So you’re left with these lit­tle bits and pieces, the day-to-day which, when you add them up, you turn around and go, ‘Yeah, that was my life.’ And that’s what not hav­ing hurl­ing has been like. The games, yes of course. But ev­ery­thing else that goes with them, just as much so.”

As de­fend­ing All-Ire­land cham­pion, Tip­per­ary will have back-to-back talk to lis­ten to and plenty of chat that a win­ter cham­pi­onship won’t suit them. There’s club v county bonly at des­ig­nated times and on the pro­viso that they had no in­ter­ac­tions.

The lock­down was still dra­co­nian across the whole of so­ci­ety but no group was more re­stricted in what they could do or who they could see than older peo­ple. So it made sense to text Prof O’Shea and get his take on it all.

“Al­ways happy to talk,” came the re­ply, “but not right now. The gen­er­a­tional is­sues are in­ter­est­ing and com­plex. Give me a shout in Phase 3, in about a month, if you’re still in­ter­ested and I’m still rel­e­vant. E.”

In times like these, it would be hard to think of any­one more rel­e­vant. And so we met this week, the first foray out into the world at large for ei­ther of us since early March. “It’s hard to know how to act,” he said across a cof­fee dock ta­ble. “I have my mask in my pocket. The nu­ances of it all are in­ter­est­ing, how peo­ple be­have and ev­ery­thing.”

Mo­men­tous cri­sis

Work­wise, life in the lock­down wasn’t mas­sively dif­fer­ent to what it would have been oth­er­wise. He tipped away on some projects, helped his PhD stu­dents along, kept him­self up to speed with var­i­ous bits of data. The comet’s tail from this will blaze for years to come and ev­ery bit of pol­icy com­ing down the track in his area will be af­fected by it.

“One of the things to re­mind our­selves of con­stantly is that we’re still in the mid­dle of this.

“It’s very early to be mak­ing pro­nounce­ments on how this pans out. It’s not im­pos­si­ble to say things but lots of things have hap­pened that we’re prob­a­bly still try­ing to fig­ure out our­selves, let alone on a so­ci­etal level and you have to be aware of that con­text.

“That said, this has been a mo­men­tous cri­sis. Peo­ple were try­ing to deal with this cri­sis on the hoof. I think that when you have a large sec­tion of so­ci­ety be­ing out­side the daily func­tion­ing of that so­ci­ety, you do run the risk of for­get­ting about them. You do run the risk of not hear­ing their voice in a strong way. When that hap­pens, there’s a high risk of pol­icy only be­ing made for the vis­i­ble.”

In the fraught months of the lock­down, des­per­ate mea­sures be­came the norm. Older peo­ple be­came lit­er­ally in­vis­i­ble, se­questered be­hind their own front door. It was well-mean­ing and for their own pro­tec­tion but we can’t pre­tend it wouldn’t have taken a toll. Though he was heart­ened by the sol­i­dar­ity younger gen­er­a­tions showed to their el­ders when the cri­sis hit, it wasn’t all per­fect ei­ther.

“At a very im­por­tant level, the con­cern that peo­ple have for older peo­ple and their at­tempt to pro­tect older peo­ple, you have to say that that was a strong de­sire within so­ci­ety. At both Gov­ern­ment level and pri­vately within fam­i­lies and so on. In a sense, that de­sire shows a strong de­gree of sol­i­dar­ity in so­ci­ety with the older gen­er­a­tions.

“How­ever, some­times in that de­sire to help, we can do it clum­sily. And I would have seen that in the lan­guage that was used, talk­ing about the ne­ces­sity for older peo­ple to be co­coon­ing and so on. That wasn’t help­ful lan­guage. And even just the fact that as a coun­try, we spent quite a bit of time talk­ing about older peo­ple rather than to older peo­ple. That didn’t al­ways give the right mes­sage.

“It’s rooted in an in­nate ageism that is pos­si­bly within ev­ery one of us. It’s a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive and cul­ture that I think we need to think se­ri­ously about, in terms of our at­ti­tudes to age and older peo­ple.

“Peo­ple reach 70 years of age and they reach it with a high de­gree of wis­dom and a high de­gree of en­gage­ment, with all sorts of lives – per­sonal, emo­tional, eco­nomic. And they’re very of­ten well ca­pa­ble of see­ing what the prob­lem is and what they must do. So I think there’s al­ways a line there be­tween our de­sire to sup­port peo­ple and give them enough au­ton­omy to do the right thing them­selves. And you just need to watch that.”

O’Shea has al­ways warned about the per­ils of pa­ter­nal­ism when it comes to how so­ci­ety treats older peo­ple. There is a line to walk, even in height­ened times. When you take away some­one’s au­ton­omy – by Gov­ern­ment de­cree, no less – you send them a mes­sage they don’t quickly for­get.

Swad­dle older peo­ple

A man who is 75 now will live an av­er­age of an­other 11 years, a woman of that age has an av­er­age of an­other 13 in her. As O’Shea says, that’s a long time to be told you don’t need to con­trib­ute. As so­ci­ety gets its feet un­der it again, the urge to swad­dle older peo­ple won’t al­ways be to their ben­e­fit.

“Even in very well-in­ten­tioned times, that can be true. The abil­ity of older peo­ple to recog­nise the risks that ap­ply now, to see the sit­u­a­tion for what it is and to make their own de­ci­sions is cru­cial. Some of the things we do as younger peo­ple – phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, try­ing to have a so­cial life – that is dou­bly im­por­tant as you get older. That you still have that abil­ity to go for walks, to do your own thing.

“Small things are so im­por­tant. I think we have all re­alised that through this cri­sis. The abil­ity to be in parks, the abil­ity to see your chil­dren, the abil­ity to see your grand­chil­dren – these are prob­a­bly the things we have re­alised the worth of over the past four months. Small plea­sures.”

His grown-up daugh­ter moved back in dur­ing the lock­down and they found them­selves go­ing on bike rides to­gether, see­ing new things in their lo­cale that they passed in the rush of life be­fore. He brought her to the places where they took her as a small child, spots she had for­got­ten and he was only now re­mem­ber­ing. The pan­demic gave them that and he’ll keep it for­ever now.

And there was hurl­ing too. Well, there wasn’t but the very ab­sence of it kept its ex­is­tence alive for him. He lives in Salthill and ev­ery time he passed the lo­cal pitch or Pearse Sta­dium, he felt the loss of it and the need to have it again.

“You look at the pitch and you ac­tu­ally be­gin to imag­ine. It’s al­most like you’re a kid again. You be­gin to imag­ine the play­ers play­ing on it. Tip­per­ary played Gal­way there in the league, it was our last game ac­tu­ally be­fore it all shut down. So you go from a game there with lots of peo­ple in­ter­ested and en­gaged in it to a cou­ple of weeks later walk­ing past it and there’s noth­ing, just noth­ing. And in a sense, that makes you re­alise what has been lost.

“That’s the kind of thing that I’m hop­ing we can get to at some stage by the end of the year. That el­e­ment of shared, com­mu­nal en­gage­meub­bling ev­ery­where too, of course. None of it strikes O’Shea as im­por­tant or even rel­e­vant just yet.

“You will be into a sit­u­a­tion where the cham­pi­onship will be played in a cou­ple of months. Hope­fully we can get some peo­ple to at­tend those matches. I don’t see the fact that it will be played in a tight sched­ule as a big is­sue. I see it as be­ing dif­fer­ent but it has been a dif­fer­ent year. The ex­cite­ment that will come, who­ever is con­test­ing the All-Ire­land fi­nal, it will still be a glo­ri­ous oc­ca­sion. A dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sion and one to be re­mem­bered as such.

“But we also have to set our ex­pec­ta­tions at the right level. We have to be aware that we can’t pre­dict the fu­ture here, in terms of the dis­ease or the virus. That’s why we need to em­brace the club cham­pi­onship. We need to live now, to live when­ever the games come. And to see those games for what they are.

“We might not get to a county scene, that’s the re­al­ity of it. So I will cer­tainly be say­ing to all our play­ers – get out there and have a real en­joy­ment of what you’re do­ing. Let’s worry about county stuff when­ever we’re due back in Sep­tem­ber. But cer­tainly, don’t be think­ing about Tip­per­ary now. Just get out and play. And be. Es­sen­tially, that’s the thing. Be. In ev­ery part of your life.”

For all your life.

We have to be aware that we can’t pre­dict the fu­ture here, in terms of the dis­ease or the virus. That’s why we need to em­brace the club cham­pi­onship. We need to live now, to live when­ever the games come

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE/INPHO

Ea­mon O’Shea: ‘I al­ways think of hurl­ing as a lan­guage, a nar­ra­tive that goes on par­al­lel to all our other nar­ra­tives.’

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