According to the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP), many older Irish people are now dying of loneliness. It's a stark message that underpins the urgency of their mid-winter appeal for people to visit elderly neighbours, particularly during seasonal cold snaps.
Commenting on a recent report showing that half a million people in the UK spend every day alone, SVP national vice president Kieran Stafford says the reality in Ireland is just as bleak.
"Some people don't see a living soul from one end of the week to the other, apart from the postman," he says. "At SVP, we help people in financial difficulty, but the poverty of loneliness is every bit as real."
Ireland may have one of the highest birth rates in Europe, but this fertile fact obscures that we are also a rapidly ageing nation, with the percentage of people in their 70s and 80s growing faster than the rest of the population. But for many, what should be the golden years become, in reality, the lonely years. Over Christmas just gone, calls to ALONE, the charity that helps elderly people in Dublin, were up four times on the previous year, and Age Action says State services are lagging far behind need nationwide.
"I don't think people appreciate just how serious an issue loneliness is in Ireland," says Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications with Age Action. "Research from the Institute of Public Health published earlier this year estimated that 10pc of older people suffer from chronic or persistent loneliness. This can cause depression, increase the likelihood of nursing home admission and affect cognitive function. Loneliness damages physical and mental health.
"It can be particularly challenging in rural communities, especially if an older person lives some distance from the nearest town and has no car. Public transport is patchy in many places and there are suggestions the Bus Éireann expressway service may be under threat. More than one older person living in rural Ireland has told us the travel pass isn't much use to them when there are no buses or trains on which to use it."
But it's not only rural areas where people can feel isolated. After a snowstorm in Dublin last year, one elderly woman living in an estate of 400 houses felt she didn't know her neighbours well enough to ask them to get her bread and milk. It was only during a routine call from Homelink, a company that phones older people at home, that she mentioned it.
A positive example of how practical steps can be taken at local level to support elderly people living on their own, Homelink is a call service for older people in the South Dublin/North Wicklow region. It has 870 clients: some sign up to get a phone call every day, others once a week.
"They don't tell you they're lonely, but we know the ones who are," says Homelink manager Anne Rorke. "They're the ones who say, 'I knew you were going to call today, so I got up and got dressed,' or, 'You're a little late today,' because they've been sitting beside the phone waiting for it to ring.
"One woman in her 80s told us she'd had our number on a piece of paper for six weeks. She finally dialled after falling into a glass coffee table while trying to take down her net curtains for washing. Her children all live abroad, and she didn't tell them about the fall, because she didn't want to worry them.
"One man likes us to call him five times a day. Each time he says simply, 'I'm okay, thanks very much,' and hangs up. Somebody else might chat for half an hour.
"People need to make new friends when they start outliving their old ones. It's not easy though, so we run coffee mornings and other events to help people socialise.
"We send everyone a Christmas card - nothing extravagant; funds wouldn't stretch that far. One man called us last month to say, 'It's the best Christmas card I ever got. Thank you so much.' The simplest gestures can mean a lot to an older person living alone."
Elderhomeshare provides another example of how to address the needs of elderly people living alone in a practical manner. Founder Saoirse Sheridan established the service, which matches older homeowners looking for security, companionship and a bit of help around the house with vetted accommodation seekers - caring, responsible professionals and third level students struggling to afford spiralling rent in the capital - who act as homeshare companions.
An example of her own business model, 43-year-old Saoirse lives with a 97-year-old man in south Dublin.
"It's a mutually rewarding arrangement," she says. "We get along very well and I provide support, while I don't have to worry about paying bills. I do some shopping, prepare meals and keep the house tidy, which isn't hard with just two people, and his children are delighted that he's not alone, especially at night. I'd consider him a good friend now.
"The business is growing slowly but steadily. It's not like regular renting. In return for a contribution, usually between €100 and €150 a month, homeshare companions offer 10 hours a week practical help, doing things like housework, making dinner, walking the dog or grocery shopping. They can't invite friends round without the owner's permission, but their personal space, privacy and independence are still their own." Lucy Liu (31), a Chinese PhD student, moved in with Mary (91), and her daughter, Mary B, last September. Mary B sometimes has to travel abroad and since her mum had a fall a couple of years ago, the family was anxious she shouldn't be alone at night. An advert for Elderhomeshare caught their attention.
"It seemed like the ideal solution," she says. "Mum's in good health and doesn't need a carer. We just wanted somebody reliable who would provide a safe, secure presence when one of us was not around, and that's what Lucy does." They started with a month's trial period to see if the arrangement worked out, but Mary - who's lived in her family home for over 50 years - says it worked out well from the start.
"Lucy has a friendly personality and fit in right away," she says.
"She's at college every day including weekends which suits me, because I don't want or need somebody watching over me all day. I know people who are lonely, but I have great family support, which I appreciate very much. Lucy sometimes stays late at college in the evenings, but sometimes we listen to music and watch TV together. When my daughter is away, she bids me goodnight and brings me a cup of tea in the morning.
"I have six children, and Lucy joined in some of our family gatherings over Christmas. We helped her celebrate her birthday on New Year's Day and she considers herself part of the family. She told her parents in China that we're her Irish family."
In return for renting the spare room at a reduced rate, Lucy helps around the house.
"Once a week I mop the kitchen floor and the bathroom, and vacuum the house," she says.
"It's not a big thing. I chose this home-stay accommodation for a few reasons.
"The rent is low, senior citizens are the safest group to share a home with, and it gives me a chance to improve my English. The two Marys are very considerate and we live in harmony. It's been an amazing experience to live with a local family and feel part of that family. It's definitely a win-win situation."
For further information visit: elderhomeshare.ie, homelinkbray-supporting-older-people.com, alone.ie, ageaction.ie, svp.ie