The loneliness epidemic and how three women beat it
As part of the Treasure House project helping older people who feel isolated, a 1940s-themed workshop at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra brought together more than 100 people. Stephanie Bell finds out how it changed their lives
Can you imagine going for an entire month without speaking to a single person? It doesn't really bear thinking about and yet it is the norm for around a million older people in the UK, who have no one but the television for company.
Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and one in 10 people aged 65 or over say they always or often feel lonely.
Thanks to the efforts of one of Northern Ireland's leading housing associations, a new scheme to tackle loneliness has seen dozens of elderly people finding new friendships, enjoying busy new social lives and discovering hobbies they had never had the chance to try before.
Treasure House is a new five-year project designed to improve the quality of life, health and self-esteem of isolated older people living in housing schemes across Northern Ireland.
Funded by a £500,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund's Reaching Out: Connecting Older People programme, Clanmil Housing is running the new programme in partnership with National Museums NI to give its tenants the chance to engage with their neighbours outside their home environment, to share a day out and to learn something new together.
Monthly workshops are held at National Museums' sites throughout Northern Ireland, where elderly people are given the opportunity to take part in a range of activities such as making harvest knots, arts and crafts, baking, reminiscence, candle dipping, blacksmith demonstrations, listening to music and many other traditional pastimes.
The activities are designed to prompt memories and promote conversation that continues long after the session's end, helping to build good neighbour relationships and a strong sense of community at each scheme.
There was much laughter and a fair bit of reminiscing as old memories came flooding back when more than 100 people revisited the 1940s at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra during the programme's most recent outing.
The 1940s themed event aimed to bring back to life a decade dominated by World War Two with the food, music and fashion of the era, and activities, including cooking with war time rations and a Dig for Victory workshop.
Fun and friendship was clear to see as we caught up with three of those taking part to find out what difference the Treasure House programme has made to their lives.
‘I’ve rediscovered art and I’m not lonely any more’
Jamaican-born Joyce McMullen (87) moved to Northern Ireland when she was in her 20s, and now lives in Sydenham Court supported housing in Belfast.
Joyce met her husband, Harry from Bushmills, aged 17, when he was in the Army, based for two years in Jamaica.
The couple eventually settled in Northern Ireland and had one son, Lloyd, who tragically died from cancer when he was just 24.
Joyce lost Harry seven years ago and suffered terrible loneliness until she moved to Sydenham Court in 2013.
Since then, her life has become full once again with new friends and now, thanks to Treasure House, she has rediscovered a love for art and the joy of regular outings.
"I met my husband at a party when I was 17 and came to Northern Ireland a couple of years later. I've been home to Jamaica four times since then," she says.
"Losing my son was tough and it took me a long time to get over it, and I still don't like to think about it. It was hard, too, losing Harry and I was really upset for a long time, but you do get used to things in your life."
Now, though, she is happily settled in her new home. "I haven't been lonely since I moved here. I'm very happy here. I don't have that feeling of loneliness anymore," she says.
"Treasure House has been fantastic. I used to draw when I was younger and haven't done it for years. I've started drawing again, mostly animals and swans and I really love it. I'm not as good at it as I used to be, but the girls tell me I am. It is nice to find pleasure in it again."
As well as her artistic endeavours, Joyce is socialising again. "I look forward to the monthly outings and going to the museums, which I find interesting, and just seeing different places. I get out and about, and enjoy having a coffee and a bun." she says.
"I've made good friends and everyone here is so cheerful all the time. I have found happiness here."
‘My life is worth living again’
Sandra Cunningham (59), a mum-of-three and a grandmother from Coleraine, had been isolated in her home for many years because of illness.
She suffers from bipolar depression and felt so shut off from the outside world that she took five overdoses. "My life was so bad that I didn't want to be here," she says.
She had withdrawn for so many years from people that even when she moved to Gloonan House independent living scheme in Ballymena two years ago, she still couldn't imagine life any other way.
Now, thanks to the Treasure House programme, for the first time in many years, she has discovered what it feels like to be happy.
She loves her apartment and enjoys getting together with her neighbours for their regular lunch clubs, exercise classes and outings.
"For the first year I was here, I hardly ever came out of my apartment," she says. "Before coming to Gloonan, I'd lived in a wee bungalow in Coleraine on my own for 10 years and I felt very isolated," she says. "I could go for weeks without speaking to another soul. I was very down and had two breakdowns. I even tried to commit suicide."
Sandra's social worker recommended that she move to a place where she would have company and that's how she came to live at Gloonan House.
"By the time I moved in here, I had been on my own for so long that I found it really hard to communicate with other people. Our scheme co-ordinator, Yvonne, tried to persuade me to come along to some of the activities in the common room, but I just didn’t feel up to it. To be honest, I was terrified. I just kept myself to myself,” she says.
The breakthrough came when Clanmil introduced the Treasure House project.
Initially, Sandra didn’t feel she could take part, but Yvonne eventually persuaded her to give it a try, by encouraging her to bring a friend who visited her regularly at the scheme.
“I felt it was impossible for me to go. I’m bipolar and have lots of other health issues that mean I’m in constant pain. To go anywhere is a big deal for me.
“Even getting up and dressed in the morning is an ordeal,” she says.
“But I plucked up the courage and went along that first time and I really enjoyed it.
“We went to the Folk Museum in Cultra and I loved looking round the old cottages and really enjoyed the crafts. I have problems with my hands, so the craft sessions are quite a challenge, but there are always lots of helpers.
“I love making the wee things and I have a felt picture frame, a corn doll and other nice things that I can take home and look at. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘I made that’.
“It makes me feel that I have done something good and that life is not all bad.
“That first trip broke the ice and helped me get to know my neighbours at Gloonan. Now, I go to all the Treasure House sessions and to everything else that’s going on at the scheme.”
Over the past year, Sandra has had a number of setbacks. She suffered two mini strokes last summer and recently battled pneumonia.
But once she felt well again, she couldn’t wait to get back to her friends at Treasure House. “I want to push myself as far as I can go now. Sometimes I come home from the trips in a lot of pain, but that doesn’t put me off,” she adds. “I’m doing things that I haven’t done in years. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could come so far in such a short time.
“Two years ago, I was at breaking point. Without Gloonan and the Treasure House project, I truly believe I wouldn’t be here today.
“Everybody is so kind and it is nice to feel alive for once in my life.”
‘The first night was the first time in years I felt safe’
Margaret McCrory, a widow and mother-of-one with three grandchildren, was one of the first people to move into Slemish Court independent living in Ballymena when it opened 20 years ago.
Margaret had suffered a break-in at her home in the town, which left her feeling vulnerable. She never again felt that she could relax in her own home.
“My late husband was ill and in and out of hospital. I came home one day to discover the house had been broken into,” she says.
“I was living on my nerves anyway at the time because of my husband’s illness and the way I felt after the break-in was something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
“It was what they had done to my home, not what they took. I never felt comfortable again there and I couldn’t sleep in the house on my own. I had to sleep in my neighbour’s house.
“After my husband passed on, I still never felt safe and when they opened this place, I was one of the first residents. The first night was the first time in years I felt safe and slept all night.
“I have a bus pass and I do use it, but since going to Treasure House, I have been to the Ulster Museum in Omagh and the museum at Cultra. Everyone is so friendly. My sight is not great and my hearing is not so good and I am not the best with my hands.
“At first, I found doing the crafts hard, but people really helped and it is good fun.
“I used to watch too much TV before and it is lovely now to go out in the fresh air and to spend time with friends. It is really good to enjoy yourself and spend time with other people.”
Going home to the vulnerable
- Clanmil Housing owns and manages almost 4,000 homes throughout Northern Ireland
- These include homes for families and single people, independent living schemes for older people, housing with care for frail older people and supported housing for older people with dementia
- Clanmil also helps facilitate home ownership for people who are not in a position to purchase a home outright
- The company recently embarked upon an ambitious development programme to deliver a further 2,000 much-needed new homes throughout Northern Ireland
- As well as great homes and neighbourhoods, Clanmil provides support services designed to help ensure that those who live in its properties get the most from life and reach their full potential
- For its older tenants Clanmil promotes positive ageing, encouraging them to stay active and connected
- The Treasure House Project is a major part of this and aims to improve the quality of life, health and self esteem of isolated older people living in Clanmil housing schemes across Northern Ireland