THE FACT OF THE MATTER
BY PAUL HOPKINS
Despite the apparent uplift in the economy, costs still remain high for fuel and basic foods. Many families and individuals are turning to the ever busy de Paul Society for assistance, with the local charity spending more than €8,000 a week helping those in need.
The society was also particularly aware of the scourge of homelessness – 13,179 and rising – and spoke of the society’s volunteers giving assistance and friendship to many.
Friendship to those who will be lonely this Christmas. And loneliness is not just the prerogative of Kilkenny, nor any other county.
Although she did marry and honeymooned in Ireland, her ancestral home, Charlotte Bronte once said: “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”
The late Mother Theresa said: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
While the Christmas countdown is now well in full swing, one in every 10 on this island faces being alone over the festive holiday, according to Alone.
We may well be living longer, with those 65 and over now numbering one in nine of the population of this island. But, while we have succeeded in adding years to the life, how successful are we as a society in adding life to the years? While many older people are still embedded in the heart of their family and community, others have become increasingly isolated. It is a sad indictment that, in an age where people are more connected than ever with iThis and iTheOther, so many feel socially marooned.
Loneliness is different from being alone. Many older people — already isolated through bereavement, disability or living in the back of beyond — can find their solitary lives decidedly difficult. We are social creatures, and days in unsought isolation makes for an unhealthy life, saps morale and can, sadly, nudge towards depression and mental illness.
Loneliness can be as corrosive as any cancer, says Irish journalist and counsellor Anne Dempsey, author of The Retirement Handbook.
Loneliness, I would argue, has a direct correlation with the State’s erosion of local communities and community infrastructure. The rural post office, the bank, the corner shop, the fair and the livestock mart were all part of the fabric of society, contributing socially as well as commercially to people coming together.
A decline in neighbourliness is another concern. Nobody wants to get involved anymore, as my Auntie May was wont to say, the same Auntie May who told her daughter before she popped her mortal socks that she did not want to lie in the church overnight because “I don’t want the neighbours knowing I have died”.
She was 94.
You should get out more often, get more involved, is something you’ll often hear the younger among us say to older people. However, for some, combating loneliness is not a simple matter of going out and joining a club. Often, what has caused a withdrawal from society has deeper roots including fears, shyness and lack of confidence. Anne Dempsey says addressing these roots is the first step to breaking barriers down.
“This is where you and I come in. Society as a whole has a part to play in combating loneliness. Those of us with an older neighbour, friend or relative living alone could take time to phone or visit,” she says.
A regular half-hour visit could make a wealth of difference in helping someone feel wanted and remembered.
The heartbreaking reality is that older people, alone this Christmas, are living in hope that they will get an invite to dine with someone, instead of spending the day staring at the four walls.
We are all potentially facing old age and yet the elderly are sometimes almost invisible, as if we don’t want to accept that this may well be our fate too some day. [Declaration here: I have the travel pass].
Most of us fear being alone. And its attendant consequences. A life with frequent human, everyday interaction has the potential to be a life rich in connection, engagement and belonging. It’s good to talk: it’s what we do best
As someone once said to me: “It’s not loneliness that makes being alone unbearable but accepting the fact that of the 8.1 billion of us on this planet, not a single soul has sought, or fought, hard enough to be with you.’’
A sobering thought this Christmas.