Don't let them be lonely this Christmas
As a Northern Ireland charity launches a campaign to help thousands of elderly people who would otherwise spend the festive season on their own, Stephanie Bell finds out how a visit can be the best present of all
No one should have no one at Christmas - that is the emotive message being delivered this festive season by a leading local charity for the elderly.
Launched today, the Age NI campaign aims to ensure that no older person spends Christmas Day alone by urging us all to keep an eye out for elderly relatives, friends and neighbours.
The charity says that thousands of older people in Northern Ireland are facing the ups and downs of life almost entirely alone this Christmas, with 100,000 saying that TV is their main form of company.
Age NI chief executive Linda Robinson says that loneliness is one of the biggest issues facing older people in Northern Ireland today: "One in three older people here tell us that they are lonely.
"They have no one close to share the good times with, to go to for support when life is tough or for trusted advice to help solve a problem. Having someone to turn to, at any age, is important to us all."
Linda is asking the local community to be aware of elderly people living close by and is asking people to encourage them to call the Age NI Advice Service.
The charity provides a range of support services for elderly people every day, helping them to socialise and make new friends and relieve their loneliness.
"Everyone faces ups and downs. Services like Age NI day centres, the Age NI First Connect Service and the Age NI Advice Service are providing companionship and support to thousands of people every year," Linda says.
"We help people to become reconnected with their local communities, to get their confidence back and to love later life again.
"Being there for those who need us isn't only about tackling the really big problems and issues. It's about helping to provide the little things that can make a big difference, too.
"Remember how you felt the last time someone made you a cup of tea after a hard day or how good it was to hear from a friend who just rang to say hello?
"It's those times when people really miss having someone around them who cares.
"That's why Age NI is encouraging people to look out for older family, friends and neighbours, to make sure they are not alone this Christmas. If you are concerned that someone you know is facing later life alone, with no one to turn to, encourage them to call the Age NI Advice Service to find out how we can help.
"Pass on our free phone number, 0808 808 7575, so that they have it to hand, even if they don't feel like calling immediately."
Supporting the new campaign is Miss Northern Ireland, Leanne McDowell, and her grandfather, Richard Curry, who both talk above about their special bond. And two elderly people who have benefited from Age NI's Day Centre services explain why it is important to get out and make new friends.
Beauty queen Leanne McDowell's grandad, Richard (70), a retired health and safety training manager, and her granny, Eva (71), live in Cookstown, where Leanne grew up before moving to Glengormley with her mum, Elaine Simpson.
Marketing student Leanne (20), who is currently representing Northern Ireland in the Miss World contest in China, says: "I have a fantastic relationship with my granda, Richard. He's one of the most important people in my life and I can't imagine spending Christmas without him.
"That's why I wanted to support older people's charity Age NI this year, because I know that there are thousands of older people in Northern Ireland who don't have family or friends around them at this time year.
"When I think of the relationship I have with granda, it makes me sad that others don't have that special bond in their lives.
"We've always had a really close relationship. Because my dad lived in England, granda has always been the father figure in my life. He's been there for the school runs, the driving lessons, and to help me revise for my exams.
"Sometimes I'm sure granda felt as though he was the one doing the GCSEs. He's just so caring and never has a bad word to say about anybody or anything. I love him to bits."
It's clear as Leanne's grandfather, Richard, speaks that the feeling is absolutely mutual and there is no doubt his granddaughter is the apple of his eye.
"Leanne lives in Belfast now with her mum Elaine and, although we live in Cookstown, the distance doesn't matter," he says.
"Leanne lifts me and her granny Eva when we see her. She's such a sensitive girl and always puts other people first. We love to see her and her mum coming up the road. It makes our day. Never a day goes by when we don't text or phone each other."
Leanne's grandfather is still very hands on, helping his beautiful granddaughter with practical as well as emotional support when she needs it.
Leanne says: "Granda still washes my car for me, something he always did when I lived in Cookstown and even though he's got to come up to Belfast now, it's still one of those little ways that he looks after me."
Christmas is a big time for the family to get together.
"We love this time of year. Mum and I head down the road to granny and granda's house," Leanne adds.
"There are always plenty of thoughtful presents to open and granny and mum cook up a storm.
"We also turn the computer on and Skype my uncle in Glasgow, and then we get cosy on the sofa to catch the Christmas TV. Or maybe take a wee nap. We are so lucky to have each other.”
Richard says he feels blessed to have his health and his family around him and believes it is important for retired people to keep busy.
He adds: “TV is all well and good, but we would all rather have people around us, to chinwag with face to face. Eva and I are blessed. We have our family around us, we’re very mobile, and we love to get out and about.
“Not everyone is as lucky as us. In my younger days people used to go for what we a called a ceilí at each other’s houses but they don’t do that as much anymore. It’s just not that easy these days. People have their families, work, and busy lives to lead. Sometimes it’s hard to make time.”
Also counting her blessings, Leanne was thinking of other elderly folk who don’t have the support of a loving family as she urged readers to be mindful of the new Age NI campaign.
She adds: “It’s nice for me to know that granny and granda have each other.
“I don’t like to imagine either of them on their own. They will always have me and mum and the rest of the family to rely on. That’s why I think it’s so important to support Age NI’s appeal this Christmas. No one should have no one — it’s so simple but so true.
“It’s important to encourage people to stop and think about older friends and family in their lives.
“We can all make a bit more time for people. Sometimes it’s just a hello across the fence to a neighbour to make sure they’re okay, or lifting the phone to a member of the family that we haven’t talked to in a little while.
“One of my favourite quotes is from Winston Churchill: ‘We make a living by what we earn but we make a life by what we give’. It’s very true.
“I’m encouraging people this Christmas to give their time to an older person they know, or give a small donation to help Age NI make a difference to the lives of lonely older people in Northern Ireland.”
Peggy McCausland (86), a widow, attends Age NI’s Skainos day centre in east Belfast. The centre has become like a family to about 140 older people who come through its doors every week. Peggy has been going to the centre for just a few months and says she absolutely loves it.
“It’s the people and the fun we have,” she says, adding: “That’s why I love coming here. If I wasn’t at the centre I’d be at home alone. There’s no joy in that. There’s nothing like having people around you for a chat and a laugh, is there? We all need a wee bit of company, people to put a smile on our faces.”
Even though she feels blessed to have her four children and grandchildren around her, she says it still can be lonely living alone.
“My family is great and every Monday I head out with one of my daughters for lunch and a wee bit of shopping and you never know where we’ll end up. I love days out with her,” she says.
“The thing is that no matter how big and loving your family is, there are always times that you can feel lonely. It can happen at any time. When the door closes, and you draw the curtains, you’re on your own. I really hate this time of year because it’s dark and the evenings can feel very long. That’s when I miss my husband George, and my children and grandchildren.”
Her children leaving home and then her grandchildren growing up have been two of the hardest things for Peggy to cope with as she gets older.
She says she tries to keep herself busy. “When my children left home, that was a difficult time. The noisy house became awfully quiet, but then my grandchildren came along and those were the happiest years of my life,” she says.
“I looked after them and loved every minute. Just to see their faces coming up the path and them with big smiles and big hugs. I loved to hear their stories and I wish I could have that time over again…even now when I see grannies and grandas picking their grandchildren up from school I feel a bit emotional and envious, to be honest.
“I hate to think what life would have been like without them. It’s role reversal now though — when they were younger, I asked to hold their hands to walk along the pavement or cross the road. Now they take my arm to keep me close.
“The one thing I’ve learned about loneliness is that you need to fill your time with things you love to keep it at bay. I occupy my mind and fill my hours with music.
“I’ve taken up the harmonica, guitar and bought a piano. I also love to draw and practise calligraphy. TV does keep me company, but only if its programmes that feed my brain like Time Team or Countryfile.
“When I feel lonely, I know that if I really need them, that I have people who care about me at the end of the phone. I have my music. I have my friends at the day centre.
“I feel sad for the people I know who have no one and nothing in their lives.”
When Belfast pensioner David McMillen’s late wife Kathleen was in hospital with dementia eight years ago, he had a chance meeting in the ward with two men who were going through exactly the same experience.
David (70) started to attend the Skainos day centre in east Belfast which changed his life.
The two pals he met in hospital, who are sadly since deceased, both went to the Age NI day centre and urged David to join them. It had a huge impact on him at a time when he was struggling to cope.
“Dementia affects everyone and everything,” he says. “When you go through something like that, it can be very difficult. Although it was my wife who was living with dementia, everyone around her was affected, too. It was a very isolating time.
“It’s hard to put into words how you feel, or to explain it to other people who aren’t in the same place.
“When I met Liam and George that was a bit of turning point for me. They were dealing with the same things that I was. They understood what I was going through.
“At the time, they were both going to an Age NI day centre. They found it a welcome respite from everything else, and a much needed opportunity to get out of the house and meet other people. They encouraged me to do the same.
“You don’t realise how cut off you can get when someone close is ill. You’re too busy worrying and caring about them.
“Over time though, your routine changes, slowly but surely, and suddenly you don’t have the same network around you.”
David says that he feels much luckier than many older people he knows because he has an extended family, but realises that it is unrealistic to expect them to be there 24 hours a day.
“That’s just life. That’s why the day centre is so important to me and everyone else,” he adds.
“It’s full of friendly faces. It’s the craic and banter we have over a cup of tea or playing a game of pool.
“Living on your own can be hard, but the day centre is full of people just like me who enjoy the company.
“I made two great friends the day I met Liam and George and thanks to them I’ve made many more since. They have both sadly passed away, Liam very recently, and I miss them both. With their help I got through a difficult time.
“The day centre feels like a second family. There might be days you come in grumpy, but you always leave with a big smile on your face. And at the end of the day, we all need people in our lives to make us smile.”
If you would like to support Age NI’s ‘No One Should Have No One At Christmas’ appeal, visit [http://www.ageni,org/donate]www.ageni,org/donate or text LONE333 to 70070 to donate just £3 to help the charity provide companionship, advice and support to older people facing later life alone in Northern Ireland