Sunday 23 October 2016

Mary Kenny... reach out to your elders

The social media age can be a lonely one for older people

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

I was sitting in a departure lounge at Dublin Airport recently, awaiting a boarding call, when it occurred to me that everyone - yes, everyone - around me was glued to a mobile phone. Some may have been reading or watching Netflix, but most seemed to be texting. Who, I wonder, were these people messaging all the time? They must have thousands of friends.

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I sat with my newspaper crossword reflecting that, really, there was nobody to whom I could send a text, just saying hello. Yes, I'm fortunate to have a family, but you can't be pestering your family all the time. I have good friends, too, but I wouldn't want to bother them with trivialities. What am I going to message: "Hello - I'm at the airport"?

This, I thought, is what it probably feels like to be lonely. Perhaps even lonely and old. Everyone else's life seems to be buzzing in a continuing social whirl, while you sit there wondering if you lack some key ingredient: who needs you, anyway?

It's a sure thing that, as you get older, you are more vulnerable to loneliness. Those you have loved die. The friends of your youth move away. Your adult children have lives of their own, and you don't want to morph into the kind of old bat who is described by younger relations as "needy" (sometimes with an eye-rolling expression).

Yet there is a need for older people to have connections with others, to keep stimulated, to keep challenged, and to keep involved in a conversation.

October 1 is the UN International Day of Older Persons - so be nice to an oldster next Thursday.

Anne Dempsey, the Communications Manager with Third Age - the national voluntary organisation bringing opportunities to older people in Ireland - says there are people who ring their Senior Help Line just to engage in a conversation with another human being.

There are older people who telephone on Christmas Day and they've seen no one over the Christmas, had no visitors and no contact with others. There was a time, especially in rural Ireland, when one of the main forms of recreation was just visiting friends and relations. That's much diminished.

Rural Ireland today, says Anne - who is in her 70s and a trained counsellor in age-related matters - is often most especially lonely. Perhaps the 'Facebook friends' have replaced the real friends. The Third Age helpline receives 25,000 calls a year, which is a measure of the need for contact.

It's great an organisation like Third Age exists - it has been going for 26 years now - and it is so active. It's all about connecting people. The Senior Help Line is staffed by trained volunteers of which there are 1,400 throughout the country. There's a programme called Sage - Support and Advocacy for Older People - which trains volunteers to work in nursing homes, and from what I've seen of nursing homes, such support is surely needed.

Third Age also has a project called Fáilte Isteach, which offers the most practical kind of support to migrants - teaching them English, the world's most useful language, introduced by a charming Irish phrase meaning 'come on in'.

And next Thursday, international oldsters day, GAA legend Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh is launching a walk at Dublin City University, starting at 11am, which is part of their Operation Conversation campaign. The idea is to keep up the conversation among older people, blending physical and emotional health and to encourage both talking and listening - I'd never have imagined that the Irish needed to be prompted to talk more, but for some older people, it is the case.

Dublin City University deserves special praise, by the way, for affirming itself as the first university practically in the world which especially targets older people - the world's first 'age-friendly university'. Bravo, DCU.

And here's a very welcome project sponsored by Third Age: pupils at Ashbourne Community School in Meath will receive an award from Minister of State Kathleen Lynch on October 1 for teaching older people how to make better use of new technology, including the internet. This is a brilliant example of inter-generational contact. We all need a youngster to explain to us the bewilderingly swift changes in technology.

Technology is paradoxical. In one way, it connects people - and we have to master it to learn how to stay connected. Yet, there are times when it can feel isolating - like that moment when everyone seems to be on their smartphones and there seems to be so little opportunity for face-to-face contact. Travellers used to chat to one another on trains and planes and buses: that seems to occur much less now.

Sometimes it's said we live in an era that worships youth: actually, every age has worshipped youth (and beauty), from the Greeks onwards. And yet, look on the positive side - many older people today are terrifically active and involved: they fill art galleries, theatres, concerts, soirées, public lectures, book clubs and, of course, churches. But Third Age is much needed to keep up the momentum of connection, conversation and encouragement. Count me in.


Third Age's Senior Help Line: LoCall number 1850 440 444, open 10am-10pm daily , and

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