'These people care about me'
On reaching retirement, living alone meant living in isolation for Leo Kelly until a health nurse suggested he meet with Alone, writes Edel Coffey
LEO Kelly (69) from Balbriggan, Dublin, was first faced with living alone 14 years ago, when his marriage broke up. Initially, living alone didn't bother Leo. He was still working, and had a routine to his life, even if his social life had dwindled.
"When I separated, I realised most of my social occasions were with my wife's friends. Everything was organised by her. I used to go to the pub on Friday nights because Gaybo was on but when everything ended, I found all I had was those friends from the pub and they're not friends as such."
He tried dating for a while. "You feel a bit stupid at my age going off on a date. I went out with a couple of women here and there, but I gave that up as a bad job.
"The few women I met, the first thing they do is tell you their troubles. I said, I don't need this. When I thought about it, I realised I wasn't interested in either a casual or a long-term thing."
When Leo retired, living alone suddenly became an isolating experience. "I had no social back-up. When you retire you lose the people you work with and Balbriggan is out of the way."
Leo's two sons were grown up and working, with one of them living abroad. "I was here on my own. I didn't mind it. I was grand but I ended up not really knowing anybody at all. It got to the stage where I didn't want to go out."
A combination of the smoking ban and the clampdown on rural drink driving meant Leo also stopped going to the pub. "I got terribly isolated. I had never heard of ALONE but I was at the stage with my chest where I couldn't walk from the car to the shop and I began to panic.
"I was just sitting in, smoking. I had no exercise. I needed help to look after my daily chores. I wasn't cooking. I wasn't doing anything. I was probably depressed but I didn't know it."
Leo did realise he needed help, however, and when he went to his doctor, he put him in contact with his public health nurse, who suggested he meet with ALONE. "That was the turning point," says Leo. "It broke the momentum."
That was when Leo met Eamonn Lawless (68), from Artane, Dublin. Eamonn and his wife have always volunteered.
"When I retired, we decided we'd get in touch with ALONE."
Eamonn and Leo were introduced about three months ago and they hit it off.
"He had lost confidence that he could make it from the door of his car to the door of the shop. Now we go to the centre in the Naul for a coffee in the mornings or we go back to the house and have cake. I've got to know him and he's got to know me. We're the same age, he's from the same area, he's a very articulate man. It's something to look forward on a Monday.
"I'd be very disappointed if I didn't get to see him. I like being able to help him. You see that you're giving someone an outlet, even though it's only an hour or two hours a week.
"Just to see that you're making contact with people gives you a great amount of satisfaction.
"There's a lot of aspects to ALONE and just the word itself, I'm lucky that I'm not alone. It must be terrible to be alone."
Because Leo and Eamonn are similar ages and both come from Dublin they find they have a lot in common. "We talk about Dublin in the '50s and '60s," says Leo.
'We can talk about Keano and O'Neill taking over Ireland. There's a common thread. We find conversation easy. When you're 69 you've a lifetime to talk about. As Joyce said, there's nobody in this world who is boring."
Leo cannot overstate how important his experience with ALONE has been for him. It is not going too far to say it has been life-changing.
"Had I not been put in touch with ALONE I dread to think where I'd be now. On the days Eamonn is coming, I'm up and ready. There's a routine I have to go through. It's a day in the calendar. All of a sudden I have something to look forward to. The week has a point to it as distinct from getting up and not having any point to where you're going or what you're doing.
"It's shown me a door to a way back into society. Instead of isolating myself I now want to get out. I look up what's on in the Millhouse theatre in Rush. I look for things that are happening. I can go to the local cinema."
Leo had given up cooking completely before getting involved with ALONE but when we spoke, he was preparing pancakes for dinner that evening and has now reduced his Meals on Wheels deliveries from six days a week to two.
"It's given me the confidence-building to feel like I'm not in a dead end. The rest of your life doesn't have to be as bad as you thought it was.
"I'm not going to be running a marathon, but you take steps to try and improve your illness and get a little bit of ambition. Instead of giving up under the illness, I can now say there are people who care about me."
Eamonn understands that for some people his age, the idea of using the service like ALONE would be their worst nightmare, which he understands, but he says they are by no means intrusive.
"I didn't want someone coming in here with a turkey and a bottle of whisky on Christmas Eve. What use is that to me? It's the human touch, talking to people face to face, that makes the difference. They're just nice people and if they think it's worth their while to give up their time for people who are in difficulty, the least I can do is make an effort to improve myself."
Leo has now rebuilt his confidence and takes part in a weekly keep-fit class in a local day centre. "I can now go to the supermarket and do my shopping. I won't say I've a full diary but it's better than it was."
For more information on ALONE see alone.ie or call 01 679 1032