In any normal week, pensioner PJ Gallagher would take the bus from his home in Baldoyle into Dublin city centre three or four times. Once in town, he does the shopping, runs a few errands or meets up with a few friends. But the threat posed by COVID-19 means that his usual routine is now a thing of the past.
"Until all this is over, I'll only go once or twice a week," says the 72-year-old, who does not own a car. Although he will miss his outings, PJ has diabetes, and recognises that because of his age and his medical condition, he is at a greatly increased risk of developing complications should he contract the virus.
His trips to town aren't the only thing that will change. PJ, a retired health sector worker, is also introducing changes to his local Men's Group meetings, of which he is chair - from now on, members will have to sit two metres apart, in compliance with public health safety recommendations. And PJ himself is washing his hands seven or eight times a day, just to be on the safe side.
As one of the nation's nearly 700,000 pensioners, PJ is part of a cohort who are at increased risk of complications from the virus. We know that the risk increases the older you are, and medical conditions like heart disease, lung problems and diabetes - which are all common in the elderly - also increase your risk of becoming seriously ill. Although there is no official advice to do so yet, many over-70s are considering self-isolating, or at the very least, minimising contact with other people. While keeping well is of course the priority, there are growing concerns about the impact of isolation on our elderly community.
Octogenarian Joan Harrington rarely misses her weekly dancing and crafts clubs, and is a regular Mass-goer. However, the mother-of-five is now pulling back for fear of contracting the potentially deadly coronavirus. Joan has an underlying health condition, which further heightens her risk. "I usually go to my crafts club on a Thursday morning, and every Monday afternoon I attend a social club for dancing and singing," says Joan, who lives in the Cork suburb of Bishopstown:
"However, I have a blood condition which means I'm more at risk of the coronavirus than someone who's healthy. I didn't go to the social club at all this week because of the coronavirus, because it involves dancing, so there is some physical contact and as well as that you're in a room with 19 or 20 people.
"The chances of getting infected could be relatively high. I didn't go to Mass on Sunday for the same reason, and I won't be going to my clubs or to Mass for a few weeks now. I wouldn't stay away from my grandchildren, but if they call to see me I will be asking them to wash their hands correctly."
She will miss her regular outings, she says, particularly the two-hour Monday social session, which she's enjoyed for several years.
Joan Harrington has also limited her activities due to Covid-19. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Celine Clarke of Age Action, the support group for older people, says that some pensioners are pulling back from group events like local history talks or classes in tai chi, stress management and digital literacy.
Age Action is "anxious to ensure that older people do not become isolated," says Clarke, who adds that the organisation is encouraging people to make contact with an older person, particularly those with health issues or disabilities and if appropriate, link them in with local support services.
"Check if they need any errands run and that they have what they need," she urges, adding that it is also important to provide seniors with the official information about how to protect themselves, supply telephone numbers they can call and simply talk through the situation.
The fact that some older people are choosing to temporarily stay away from regular social activities is behind last Monday's decision by elder support agency Alone, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the HSE, to launch a support line (0818-222024) for people to call. CEO Sean Moynihan says it's a source not just for coronavirus-related health information but an important touch-point for social contact.
"Callers get the reassurance they need to deal with the anxieties that are coming up," he observes, adding that he believes that as the incidence of coronavirus increases around the world, there is a growing tendency for older people to stay indoors:
"We're getting calls from people trying to work out the best thing to do. We're giving out advice and emotional support," he said, adding that "if things change" and the situation worsens significantly Alone will ensure older people have access to food, medication and any other supports they may need.
"We can arrange to ring someone every day for a few weeks - we have 2,500 volunteers who visit and support and we have phone services in place to help combat isolation and loneliness. It's important to remember that the number of people who have Covid-19 in this country is very low, so we have not stopped our volunteers from visiting or staff from giving support, and neither have the other agencies.
"This is about solidarity and people working together. We will be able to respond to old people if they need extra social support," he said, adding that while younger adults should be conscious of following public safety advice, they should reach out to older people in need of supports. The public health advice currently does not advice against visiting others in the community, he added.
Although retired school principal Noreen Minihan is continuing with her work across the range of community activities with which she is involved, she has abandoned her usual practice of shaking hands and hugging people, is washing her hands assiduously, and for the first time in decades, will not be participating in her local St Patrick's Day parade.
President and secretary of the local Tidy Towns group, Noreen, who is in her eighties, runs weekly fundraising bingo and lottery nights for local causes, and acts as chairperson of the board of management of Scoil na mBuachailli in Clonakilty, where she lives. On top of that she attends daily Mass and she trains and supervises the church's pool of 70 altar servers from four local parish schools.
She says the threat of the virus has suddenly become very real. "This week it has really come home; it has come to Ireland. Our local St Patrick's Day parade in which the Tidy Towns participates, has been cancelled and so we'll not be participating.
"As of now I'm not really thinking of changing my routine, but I am being very careful about not shaking hands or hugging people the way I normally do.
"They say you should wash your hands for as long as it would take you to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice - and I'm doing this several times a day.
"I'm taking the recommended precautionary behaviours very seriously. My sons have also warned me to stock up on pasta, rice, soups and frozen foods in case we are all asked by the government to stay indoors and not to interact outside at all."
The advent of coronavirus has discouraged mother-of-10 adult children, Eileen Kingston, a resident of the nearby picturesque Inchydoney Island, from making her usual regular visits to friends and neighbours with compromised immune systems. For now, Eileen is continuing her work as a member of the board of Clonakilty Community College, the Inchydoney Lifeboat committee and her local residents' group, but the 78-year-old is increasingly cautious about social interaction and has decided not to meet with her youngest grandchildren for the time being.
"I am currently avoiding visiting friends or neighbours who have compromised immune systems. I am staying in contact with them via the telephone and social media. I'm also keeping my distance from people generally in terms of shaking hands or kissing people and I've just cancelled a planned visit to see my youngest grandchildren. I will also be avoiding large social gatherings from now on."
HSE helpline, Monday-Friday 8am-8pm: 1850 24 1850 l Dedicated Older Persons COVID-19 Helpline, Monday-Friday 8am-8pm: 0818 222 024 l Seniorline: Monday to Sunday 10am to 10pm: 1800 80 45 91