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Loneliness is a disease... but we have discovered a cure



Keeping active: Roy Beck in the garden

Keeping active: Roy Beck in the garden

Roy tending to his plants

Roy tending to his plants

Strong bond: Sally Thompson (left) with her friend Amelia McHugh-Elliott

Strong bond: Sally Thompson (left) with her friend Amelia McHugh-Elliott

Keeping active: Roy Beck in the garden

The Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland said last week that loneliness has become a public health epidemic. As it launches a community action plan aimed at tackling the rising problem, two people who have experienced isolation, talk to Karen Ireland.

'Without Men's Shed, I would not be here today... that's the truth'

Roy Beck (72), a retired gardener, lives alone in Crumlin. He says:

I was married for 45 years when my wife, Audrey, passed away in 2010. It was devastating as we had been together so long.

We don't have any children, so there was always just the two of us. She was ill for a long time and then she took a massive heart attack and died.

After that I was completely isolated. I lived out in the country and I spent a lot of time on my own.

I tried to get out and about and keep active, but at the end of the day I was always on my own and coming home to an empty house.

A lot of the time I was just left staring at the four walls, and I felt myself getting more and more insular and lonely. It was extremely depressing.

I had financial pressures too. Living on my own and trying to cope, it all became too much.

Finally, a friend suggested that I contact Age NI to see if they could offer any help.

They couldn't have done more for me. Along with social services, they helped me get a flat in Crumlin in the community and closer to people. They also helped sort my finances out and find out what I was entitled to.

This was a huge change for me. I felt like I was getting the old me back again.

They then introduced me to the Men's Shed programme in Antrim. Here I met men who were just like me, going through similar situations.

We bonded and there was great fellowship and craic. I discovered many people were in a similar situation to myself and were just looking to get out of the house and meet other people. I now go there four times a week. I love it.

I look after the gardens and help out with the allotments.

It has changed my life completely and made a huge difference. I have a focus now and something to live for.

Without it I don't think I'd be here. That's the honest truth. I was so lonely when I was on my own.

I think men tend to struggle more with loneliness as they don't talk about things.

I have been very lucky. I have turned my life around. I now know my wife is in a better place and I am thankful and blessed for that.

My advice to anyone who is feeling lonely or isolated is, get out there and socialise. Meet new people and make new friends.

Don't sit on your own struggling at home. There is help and support out there. Get in touch with Age NI or another charity who can help you.

I've made some great friends and I feel so much better. I go to the Men's Shed and I also look after some gardens in Crumlin. I get out and about and keep as active as possible.

I cook for myself every night. I think that is another difficult area for men - if they can't cook then they don't eat right or look after themselves. I have always been able to cook. Life is good again and I am in a good place."

'Amelia has become a great pal... I'd be lost without her'

Sally Thompson (75), a retired shop assistant, lives in Belfast with her husband Hugh (73), a retired foreman with NIE. Even  as a married couple with two grown-up sons, Paul and Stephen, they have still experienced  isolation. Sally says:

I have been ill on and off for the last 12 years. More and more, I haven't been able to get out the house to meet people and go to things.

Though I am lucky and still have my husband, it is very lonely at times for both of us. I can't really be left alone, so Hugh misses getting out and about and going to meetings and socialising with people. I miss the company too.

Getting older, especially when you are ill, can be very isolating. We both miss having company and interacting with other people.

A few years ago, a social worker came out to see us and she recommended Volunteer Now's Befriending scheme, which is co-ordinated by Victoria O'Neill.

We got in touch and found out more about the programme and how it works.

Victoria was excellent and matched us up with Amelia McHugh-Elliott (32), who started coming to our home every Thursday night from 7.30pm to 9pm.

This meant that Hugh was able to get out and go to Bible study and he knew I was okay.

Amelia has been coming now for more than three years, and she has become a very dear friend.

She comes in, makes me a cup to tea and we have a chat. She is so young and vibrant - she lights up the house and I really look forward to her coming every week.

She has taught me how to use the iPad, and we do some shopping on Amazon and different sites.

It is just great to have some company, and we always have a good time. Amelia has become such a good friend. I would be lost without her.

We have two grown-up sons, but they have busy lives and families.

They do as much as they can, but we still found we needed extra support.

I hardly get out at all now because I get so tired, so Amelia is like a breath of fresh air.

It is great to have someone so young and interesting in our lives.

I feel sorry for people who don't have any family or friends and who are on their own.

I think more people should be aware of the Befriending scheme and how it really can change your life. Hugh is able to get out every week and meet people and mix and have fellowship, and I get a different perspective on things from meeting with Amelia, who is so young.

It really has made all the difference to us and stopped us from feeling lonely and isolated."

Don't suffer in silence

If you or an older person you know are in need of advice, information or practical support on a wide range of issues including welfare benefits, community care, housing and health, contact the Age NI Advice Service on Freephone 0808 808 7575 to speak to a specialist advisor in confidence or visit www.ageni.org. Volunteer Now offers a befriending scheme to people who are struggling with illness, sight impairment, loneliness and different circumstances across Northern Ireland. To find out more, tel: 028 9023 2020 or email: info@volunteernow.co.uk

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