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Dublin: 5°C Sunday 16 January 2022

Column: This is no country for old men and women - but it could be

On this, the UN International Day of Older Persons, Alone’s CEO Seán Moynihan writes that while some people can have a wonderfully active older age, we must care for those facing isolation, depression and disability.

Seán Moynihan

MARY HAS HAD some bad luck in life. Financially she lives week to week. She has suffered ill health over the years and has returned home from England to spend her later days in Ireland with little or no network of friends or family.

Mary* is in her 70s and suffers from poor eye sight and mobility.  Having no family left, most of Mary’s childhood friends and neighbours have passed on and, as Mary gets older, her ability to make friends and maintain relationships has diminished.  Ill-health and anxiety are part of her everyday life. Mary is proud, independent and self conscious about how her life has turned out. She has come to Alone for weekly company and support.

It’s Wednesday night and a volunteer is off to visit Mary. It’s a trip made every week without fail, and which they both look forward to.  Mary is waiting with a list of post-it notes with details about everything that has occurred in the past week, but she had no-one to tell.  The volunteer sits down and Mary starts to discuss all the topics and events on the post-it note, one by one.

It’s a low cost service but the value is priceless.  The volunteer leaves after three hours knowing everything that has occurred in the past week – the latest heated debates on the Joe Duffy Show, gardening tips from Dermot O’Neill, neighbourhood antics, Lotto numbers and update on latest death notices.  There is an air of excitement because the following weekend, the quarterly Alone Dinner Dance Social with 200 guests and volunteers takes place.  Mary will be waiting at the door from 3pm on Saturday, ready to get collected at 4pm.

Ageing is inevitable for us all.  Each one of us will take a unique journey towards the later stages of life. We are all aware of the stories of the person who started studying in their 70s and went skydiving in their 80s which are fantastic achievements.  Energy, vitality and confidence in later years is to celebrated and something positive to look forward.

However, for those we work with at Alone – around one in ten – the story is very different as they tackle serious challenges, most of which they have faced on their own for many years beforehand.  Gone is the dream and expectation of aging surrounded by family and friends.  In its place can be depression, disability, emotional distress, poor health and isolation.

This is the reason Alone exists – an organisation that provides homes, a team of 150 befriending volunteers, and a crisis response service.
We apply for and receive no state funding. We are a grassroots organisation and wish to remain independent in order to react quickly to the needs of older people like Mary. We are supported by those who appreciate and value our work and who want to help us to help others.

Isolation, loneliness and depression are a silent destructive force which creeps up over many years.  The World Health Organisation has rated loneliness as a higher risk to health than smoking and as great a risk as obesity.  This is the pain of old age most do not foresee.  It leaves a person feeling unvalued, uncared for and with little or no confidence.  Many times our trained volunteers and staff are the only link an older person has to the outside world, the only offering of vital friendship and support available.

What we at Alone ask is for the Government to stop and grasp the impact recent cuts have on the most vulnerable.  Slashing low cost services does not make sense as they are the ones that produce the most value and benefit to the person.  It is so difficult to understand why you would cut services like home help and local care services when the absence of these services leads to high cost services like nursing homes.

In addition, curtailing fuel allowance schemes coming into the winter will cost lives.  The stats are that between 1,500 and 2,000 ‘excess winter deaths’ occurred in Ireland during winter 2009/20103.  This means that the number of additional deaths that occurred last winter compared to other seasons, is higher in colder months.

We strongly believe that no older person should rely on charity, that all members of the community, regardless of their age or personal circumstances, should be included and valued by society. However, hopes and aspirations needed to be linked to actions.

Our motto – ‘Don’t leave it to others, they may have left it to you’ – is a rallying cry: we believe as individuals and a community that we are not powerless in ALONE’s cause or in any of the other challenges our country faces.  We can change, we can achieve, we can reach our goals together.
George Bernard Shaw says “Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it”. James Baldwin wrote: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”

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In his pre-Election promises, Enda Kenny stated that his vision for Ireland was to become “the best small country in the world [...] to grow old in with dignity.” However, the Government’s actions so far do not reflect this wonderful aspiration.

In the current environment we need to make sure the Government balances its financial needs with the social and emotional needs of the people who live and grow old in Ireland. Alone and the older people we work with only want we want what each of us wants for ourselves.  To be valued, respected, included and cared for.

Seán Moynihan is CEO of Alone, a not-for-profit organisation that works with vulnerable older people to provide emotional and practical support.

Today is UN International Day of Older Persons.

* Mary’s story is representative of an ALONE guest / service user.

Read: Charity expresses concern about out-of-date poverty figures for those over 65>

About the author:

Seán Moynihan

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