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Being isolated is very tough, especially at Christmas: here's how we have learned to deal with it

 

Left: DJ Groover (John Bradbury) with Nick Menhinick
Left: DJ Groover (John Bradbury) with Nick Menhinick

By Claire O'Boyle

With the festive season largely focused on social gatherings, it can be a particularly difficult time for those who are alone, or are isolated through caring for relatives. Claire O'Boyle asks three NI people how they get through this testing time of year.

‘Reaching out’s not easy but I’m spending the holidays this year with some wonderful friends’

Nick Menhinick (74) is originally from London and lived across the world before moving to Belfast 12 years ago. After social isolation and struggles with his mental health left him spending Christmas Day with the Salvation Army in 2007, he has found a new lease of life through involvement with a number of groups for senior citizens in the city, including the charity Engage with Age. Nick says:

I have always had quite an interesting life. I was born in London and moved around a bit as a child, spending many years at boarding school. I lived in South Africa for many years as an adult, and eventually moved back to England before coming to the Republic of Ireland and finally to Belfast 12 years ago.

But when I came to Belfast I found it quite difficult to settle. It was different from how it had been in my younger days and I struggled to put down roots. Quite quickly, I found myself struggling.

I really didn't have a network here, and by Christmas of 2007 I spent the day with the Salvation Army. It was somewhere I had never imagined I'd be. It was a major wake-up call, and it's like they say, when you hit the bottom, the only way is up.

Eventually, with lots of support and a bit of luck, I managed to find some housing. I got into a place in South Belfast which I love. It's semi-sheltered accommodation which a lot of older people go for, as well as some people with mobility issues. It means you're living independently but if you need support, you'll be able to get help.

Being isolated like that was a difficult period of my life. You hear stories of people who won't see people for weeks at a time, and it is the reality.

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You'll get people who feel so alone they'll hide away even more, and they won't want to be contacted. Isolation just feeds into itself, it all feeds into those depressed feelings of being lonesome and destitute. It's hard to break out of.

But I've always been a resourceful person myself and when I got back on my feet I sought out these groups to find a bit of company for myself and I've made some wonderful friends.

I'm now vice chair of the Greater Belfast Senior Forum, and chairman of the South Belfast Lifestyle Forum, which is a senior citizens' group. I also work with Engage with Age and Volunteer Now, and it has honestly got me my life back.

I'm involved with the Engage with Age PAL programme - People Addressing Loneliness - and I help out with its Slipped Disco events. They're absolutely fantastic, it's a whole group of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s rocking the night away to great tunes from our youth and it's such amazing fun. We have another one coming up in January.

Once you've made the first step, these things are very welcoming and not at all intimidating.

"But while it's all very well us talking to like-minded people about how beneficial it can be, it's the people who don't know we're here that need it the most. After the difficult years I had, it's meant everything.

This Christmas I'm going to Ballymena to spend the day with some wonderful friends, before going to see more friends across in Stoke. It's not easy to reach out and get yourself out there, but it's transformative when you do it."

Slipped Disco is on Tuesday, January 28, from 7.30pm at the Black Box Belfast. Booking is essential; tel: 028 9073 5696

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Orla Watt is a full-time carer for her teenage son

‘Having a child with learning disabilities means you can be quite alone... and it’s hard’

Orla Watt (47) is a mum-of-three and full-time carer for her teenage son, who has learning disabilities. Here, the nurse from Downpatrick, Co Down tells how working with social enterprise group Parent Action helps alleviate the social isolation that can come with being a full-time carer. She says:

I used to be out and about all the time. I had a career I loved as a nurse, had loads of friends and a good social life. Christmas to me meant fun and enjoyment, nights out with friends and visits with family.

But things can change when you have a child with learning disabilities. My son - our second child - was diagnosed with autism at two-and-a-half.

It has often felt like we're on our own, left to figure out by ourselves how best to communicate with him and make things easier.

At seven, he was diagnosed with chronic anxiety. He had big behavioural issues, and for a time he didn't have the place he needed at a special school.

It was around this time I stopped work.

There is a complete absence of affordable, accessible childcare for kids with disabilities in Northern Ireland.

I've always been a social person, but it gets hard. People have to get on with their own lives and when you say no enough times, then you stop getting invited to stuff.

Christmas is actually okay for us. It's a day where we barely get out of our pyjamas and we can relax and sit around together without feeling left out because it's what everyone else is doing, anyway. I have two other children as well and it is time I can give to them because for the most part he demands more or less all of my time.

Christmas can be a time for everyone to take the foot off the gas for a little while because so much of the time things are quite hectic.

Making contact with other people in similar situations through our social enterprise group Parent Action is a real lifeline. Everyone understands what the others are going through. We know why we're stressed and tired - everyone gets it.

Parents like us don't have that lovely opportunity to meet at the school gates like other people have. We're more isolated than that, and our kids can turn up to school in a bus or a taxi. There's nowhere to congregate so if you don't go out to find people like you, then the chances are, you won't.

You'll be left on your own. And that isolation really is awful, and when you realise your freedom is very much gone, and you really can be quite alone - especially at times when your child is not well - then it's tough.

The State is really failing a lot of us here. There are times you honestly don't know where to turn for help with your child and the services simply don't exist.

The best thing for parent carers to do - in fact all carers - is to seek out people in the same situation, and as well as Parent Action I've had great support from Carers NI.

Through these organisations you'll find other people who will understand your situation, they'll know why you're tired or why you turn up for something late, and you'll find that network you've been missing out on.

It really is a lifeline and eases that sense of being on your own. It's so vitally important."

For more information about Carers NI, visit www.carersuk.org/northernireland

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Kate Roddy

‘Illness left me unable to leave the house but joining classes and getting active has changed my life’

Kate Roddy (86) lives in Belfast. After suffering from pneumonia three years ago, the grandmother-of-six experienced several months of isolation before finding solace and a new enthusiasm for her life through involvement with everything from writing and watching films to learning how to use the internet and doing Tai chi - all through the charity Engage with Age. She says:

For a time a few years ago I wasn't really functioning. I had been very unwell with pneumonia, and was ill for probably more than a year. But even when I recovered it had hit me very badly and I really didn't feel like myself.

I had become quite isolated, and by the time I was physically better I could barely bring myself to leave the house.

My children were very good and they tried their best but I think at a certain point I had come to feel quite useless. To myself, to my family and to society as a whole, really, and having been quite a useful person all my life that was a hard pill to swallow.

But it was something I'd done to myself. I'd thrown myself on the refuge heap.

My daughter called Age Concern for some advice, and before long I was going to groups through Engage with Age. They told me about going to see films at Strandtown cinema, and that was a wonderful way to get me out of the house initially.

It didn't feel like too much, and I absolutely adore film. My father had worked at film houses years ago and I used to go regularly as a child.

After a while, I started going to a writing class, something I'd never considered in my life, but it turned out to be a lovely way to get to know people because it was a way for us all to share stories about our lives. I've been to tech classes too, and learned all about how to use my mobile and tablet, and learning about the internet was great because it was something I hadn't done before.

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Kate Roddy with 81-year-old Tai chi teacher Stewart Hudson

But best of all has been Tai chi. I used to be quite active as a younger woman, playing golf, and I used to play bridge twice a week, too, but that had all stopped.

Through Tai chi I'm now walking again after suffering with arthritis, and we had a fantastic Christmas party there at the Chinese restaurant where we had a wonderful time.

The class started out with five people, and there are 21 of us now, all with different backgrounds and different outlooks.

We give to each other and that really rewards each of us enormously.

I used to be an art teacher, and that along with designing and making dresses was how I spent my life. I lost my husband 31 years ago, and with five children I was really busy for such a long time.

It might sound strange but all these things I'm doing now are for my own enjoyment and to keep myself active. I've seen a Japanese proverb recently that I love - 'Only by being active will you want to live to 100 years'.

I'm learning new things and surrounding myself with such interesting new people, doing things I've never done in all my years.

When I was a young woman, 60 was old - but that's young now. You still have a long life ahead of you at that point, and I've realised now there's a lot of life left to live, a lot left to look forward to.

I'd say for anyone feeling isolated like I did, or for their families, seek out these groups because they can really change lives. Each of them is so uplifting, and everyone leaves with smiles on their faces.

I downsized from our old family home a few years ago, and after being at the centre of the family for so much of my life, I felt I wasn't up to having all of the family at my new, smaller house. I didn't even consider it to be much of a home at all.

But this year Christmas will be lovely. I have the confidence back that I'd lost, I've already had a night out with my friends, I'm going with two of my sons for Christmas with my niece and I feel that my house is my home again - with me at the heart of it."

For more information about Engage with Age, visit www.engagewithage.org.uk

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