'Even the pubs are shut, so where do you go for company?' - Why we should keep an eye out for the elderly this Christmas
A number of years ago I saw Michael when driving along one of the many byroads of Co Leitrim. He was walking slowly, with a stick in his right hand, and on his left shoulder he carried, with obvious difficulty, a large branch.
I assumed he would later cut it up for firewood and I marvelled at his effort and determination.
He is an elderly man and the branch he carried would have weighed heavily on anyone, even someone far younger and less infirm. As I drove past I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him turn off the road and rest the branch at the side of a small cottage.
I am afraid I had forgotten about him until about a year later I was shopping in one of the new large supermarkets that have sprung up in Carrick on Shannon and I recognised him, in one of the aisles, leaning on a shopping trolley.
His walking stick was hanging on the trolley handle and he was bent over, supporting himself with the trolley while trying to see what the plastic pack on the shelf actually contained.
I watched him for a few minutes as he examined the wrapping, trying to read the print and I just thought what a bewildering place a busy supermarket must be for someone formerly used to a traditional local grocer.
Large supermarkets are difficult enough places to shop in for the rest of us but for someone like Michael their size alone must make the simple act of locating and buying a few essential items in to a daunting task.
Among the busy and well-dressed shoppers he stood out in sharp contrast for Michael was not well dressed or groomed. I watched as he finished choosing his purchases and as he left the shop, walking slowly with his bag in one hand and his stick in the other, I asked the lady at the check out if she knew him.
She smiled and said, "Sure that's Michael, he comes in every Thursday and buys his few bits".
I asked how he got to the supermarket for I remembered his house was about four miles from the town. "God, I haven't a clue," she said.
With that I paid for my own shopping and went quickly to the exit to see if perhaps he needed a lift.
It was dark and raining lightly but Michael was gone. I haven't seen him since and I hoped perhaps a kindly neighbour was waiting to leave him home but it did make me think about how tough life could be if you are old and alone in rural Ireland.
Christmas is a happy and joyous occasion it can also be a lonely and hard time for the many elderly people living out in the countryside without family support.
Does Michael have anywhere to go on Christmas day?
I do hope he does but many people don't and I suppose a mixture of pride and stubbornness prevents them asking for help or even letting anyone know that they would appreciate a hand at cutting firewood or just a bit of their time for some conversation.
It's too easy to put a few euro in a poor box or to buy some raffle tickets instead of spending something even more precious - time - by dropping in on a neighbour.
Writing a cheque to support charity is of course, a good and generous thing to do, but I sometimes think it spares us having to make the extra effort to sit down with someone who is alone and elderly and have a chat and a cup of tea.
Even the pubs are shut on Christmas day, so where do you go if you live on your own and want some company?
I still hope Michael has somewhere nice to go for Christmas. But I simply don't know if he has - and that's the bit that worries me. I just don't know.
Better service for rural dwellers
A lot of good things have happened in rural Ireland recently such as the arrival of initiatives like the Men's Sheds along with many other great services that try to check on anyone who might need assistance.
But loneliness and isolation remain a problem. Mini buses are however, available to collect those who cannot drive and bring them shopping once a week or take them to courses.
Frequent visits and access to regular home care are so important. I do recall reading however, about how one man, having endured the hardships of life on one of the islands off the West coast was brought to the mainland and spent the rest of his days in a nursing home. An American lady who was gathering folklore at the time and who had interviewed him in the past wrote how she was very concerned as to how he would adapt to nursing home life.
She asked him how he was, he replied that he was very content because, unlike on the islands, food was never scarce and with what presumably was a comment on the heating said "In here it is always summer". Now that was a happy ending.
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