AS the majority of people prepare to celebrate Christmas in the bosom of their families, we should bear in mind that the greatest gift for some who are not as fortunate may be a visit from a neighbour or an invitation to share some company for a few hours. This can be a very lonely time for older people who have no loved ones to share it with and, sadly, many people nowadays know little or nothing about their elderly neighbours.
ALONE, the charity which helps older people, recently launched a Christmas campaign, called Share Your Presence, to highlight the serious issues of isolation and loneliness, especially in rural areas. The problems have been exacerbated by the bad weather of recent weeks, which has confined many older people to their homes because of the effects of flooding.
If people haven’t seen their elderly neighbours for a number of days, call in and see if they need anything. Even a few minutes of a visit can mean so much to an elderly person, in particular, those who either may not have family of their own, or have families abroad who cannot be with them, or – worse still – relations who are too caught up in their own lives to bother making an effort.
Neighbourliness is, thankfully, an important feature of Irish community life that is still to be found in rural areas in particular. HSE and the social services, along with community volunteers, are doing marvelous work to make sure that elderly and more vulnerable people are looked after in terms of their security and welfare, but they cannot watch everyone all of the time, which is why people should be conscious of the needs of their neighbours and check regularly – especially during the winter months when they may not be able to get out of the house as often – and offer to help them with their shopping to ensure that they have they have enough food in and fuel for heating.
People need to have regular hot drinks and at least one hot meal a day; organisations such as Meals on Wheels can also provide frozen food packs that can be heated up. They should also check that elderly neighbours are prepared for very bad weather and stocked up on food and fresh water and that they have enough of any medication they may need.
Older people tend to feel the cold a lot more than younger and more active generations and, more often that not, live in old houses which do not have the same high standards of insulation as more modern homes. Therefore, they need more heating to keep warm and this requires more fuel.
According to ALONE, one in three older people in rural Ireland live on their own, and studies have shown that loneliness can make a person twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s. It should also be remembered that loneliness is not the preserve of isolated rural areas; older people can be just as lonely living in urban areas, especially in neighbourhoods that lots of new families have moved into, replacing those with whom their families grew up and now they hardly know anybody there.
Many elderly people tend to be very private and prefer not to be a burden on their neighbours, so anyone checking on their welfare should be sensitive to this in order not to come across as a patronizing do-gooder. There is a very delicate but important balance to be struck here.
ALONE advises older people that they should never be afraid to ask for help and, if they need some and cannot readily avail of it, not to hesitate to call them on 01-6791032. Other services, such as the Senior Help Line (LoCall 1850 440 444) run by Third Age, report that some of their callers contact them just to hear the sound of another human voice so great is their sense of isolation.
With people living longer lives and the number of older people increasing year on year, the government is unable to keep up with the demands for extra services for the elderly, therefore it is left to volunteers from charities and community groups to fill the void and see that people’s needs are being looked after. In the true spirit of Christmas all of us need to make a special effort to ensure our elderly neighbours are not forgotten.