Reach­ing out to the wider com­mu­nity

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Ageing With Attitude -

As win­ter draws in, one of the coun­try’s lead­ing char­i­ties for older peo­ple is call­ing for lone­li­ness to be­come a pub­lic health is­sue, writes Mar­jorie Bren­nan

AS the fes­tive sea­son ap­proaches, and com­mer­cial­ism goes into over­drive, we are bom­barded with images of peo­ple at Christ­mas par­ties and fam­i­lies gath­er­ing to­gether and feast­ing on turkey with all the trim­mings. How­ever, for many peo­ple, Christ­mas is a time when lone­li­ness and so­cial iso­la­tion can be brought into sharp and painful fo­cus.

Ac­cord­ing to Sean Moyni­han, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Alone, de­mand for its ser­vices in­creases at this time of year. “We’re com­ing into the win­ter, and the days and nights are long for so many peo­ple, the sto­ries are heart­break­ing. The hard­est thing is when we start get­ting the phone calls from peo­ple who have nowhere to go for the Christ­mas din­ner. We’ll have vol­un­teers by the dozen de­liv­er­ing Christ­mas din­ners to peo­ple who are sit­ting at home on their own. That’s the re­al­ity for many peo­ple.”

The char­ity aims to sup­port older peo­ple to age at home and has re­cently set up a task­force to in­crease aware­ness of lone­li­ness and pro­duce a set of rec­om­men­da­tions for Gov­ern­ment, State agen­cies, and all pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

Moyni­han says the im­pact of lone­li­ness on phys­i­cal and mental health can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. “The sci­ence and re­search around the ef­fect of lone­li­ness has been around for a long time but un­for­tu­nately there is no Gov­ern­ment pol­icy, no struc­ture, no fund­ing, to tackle it,” he says.

The char­ity es­ti­mates that around 10% of older peo­ple are iso­lated and lonely to the ex­tent that it will shorten their lives.

“I suppose the other side of that is 90% of older peo­ple will say they feel lonely at times but aren’t hugely af­fected. How­ever, with an age­ing de­mo­graphic that num­ber is grow­ing all the time.”

The chang­ing na­ture of so­ci­ety and our in­creas­ing de­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy also means that older peo­ple of­ten have fewer points of con­tact. “Shops, post of­fices, banks go­ing on­line means a shrink­ing com­mu­nity, so for­mal and in­for­mal con­nec­tions are gone. The way peo­ple would drop in on an un­cle or an aunt, that’s stopped. With the pres­sure on peo­ple to work to buy a house, it can be very hard to look af­ter older peo­ple, neigh­bours or rel­a­tives, peo­ple to whom you’re less con­nected than your own par­ents.”

Moyni­han says Alone is also work­ing to­wards ban­ish­ing the stigma sur­round­ing lone­li­ness and points to the suc­cess of sim­i­lar cam­paign­ing on mental health is­sues.

“We want it to be OK to say you’re lonely. There used to be a view that if some­one ended up lonely in their own age, then what could you do, how did they end up like that with no re­la­tion­ships? But the jour­ney to that sit­u­a­tion can hap­pen eas­ily. When a spouse dies you lose the love and friend­ship, you may lose half your in­come as well, and you also lose the re­la­tion­ships they had, the go­ing out to­gether. We’re do­ing a cam­paign at the mo­ment and what I love about it is that all the peo­ple on the bill­boards are real peo­ple who called us look­ing for sup­port. One of them, Don, is 82 now and at one stage he was an art critic for a national news­pa­per, a very so­cial man. He was mar­ried for 30 years, then his wife passed away, and af­ter that, re­la­tion­ships faded away.”

Ac­cord­ing to Moyni­han, about a quar­ter of the calls they re­ceive are from peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lone­li­ness — though they of­ten find it in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to ac­tu­ally say the words ‘I’m lonely’.

“I think that’s an amaz­ing thing to do be­cause peo­ple have a lot of pride. We match them up with a vol­un­teer in their area, who they meet once or twice a week. We also run a phone ser­vice for peo­ple who are iso­lated, they can ring us at any time, and those ser­vices also offer prac­ti­cal sup­port. Older peo­ple must re­alise the com­mu­nity cares, and reach out for us. If we don’t op­er­ate in their com­mu­nity we know the or­gan­i­sa­tion that does, but they must reach out to us so we can reach in.”

Moyni­han is also keen to pro­mote the ben­e­fits and re­wards of vol­un­teer­ing for the char­ity. “We had a lady pass away re­cently; she was al­most 90, and our vol­un­teer had been vis­it­ing her for around 16 years. They’d been on a jour­ney to­gether, and it was an amaz­ing con­tri­bu­tion to make to some­one’s life. As kids, we were all taught it was bet­ter to give than to re­ceive.

“There has also been a lot of re­search done on brain health which shows that vol­un­teer­ing in it­self com­bats iso­la­tion. It also in­su­lates your own well­be­ing against the risk of de­men­tia and so on. You’re ac­tive, you’re think­ing of peo­ple other than your­self, and all of that has amaz­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits.”

De­mand for the char­ity’s ser­vices con­tinue to grow and it has part­nered with other or­gan­i­sa­tions around the coun­try in an ini­tia­tive called Be­friend­ing Net­work Ire­land, which en­sures ev­ery­one has ac­cess to a qual­ity-as­sured be­friend­ing ser­vice, re­gard­less of lo­ca­tion or ser­vice provider. “We want to keep the lo­cal voices, lo­cal vol­un­teers, lo­cal cham­pi­ons go­ing. Cur­rently, we have around 1,500 vol­un­teers but our plan is to get to 9,000. There’s no fund­ing for these groups so we’re fight­ing for lone­li­ness to be seen as a pub­lic health is­sue,” says Moyni­han.

Pic­ture: Jason Clarke

COM­MU­NITY REACH: “We want it to be OK to say you’re lonely, “says Sean Moyni­han, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Alone.

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