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Only the lonely... two Northern Ireland people on how they made new friends

Losing a loved one or dealing with serious illness can affect a person’s life in various profound ways. Judith Cole hears the stories of two lives transformed through the work of inspirational schemes.

When Derrick Park's wife died suddenly in 2015, his life came to a startling halt. Like many older people who've lost a loved one, the 80-year-old RAF veteran spent most days by himself, following the same old routine. Now, thanks to National Lottery-funded Newtownabbey Senior Citizens' Forum, Derrick has found a new purpose in life and new friends to share it with.

"I come from Darlington originally and moved to Northern Ireland in 1956 with the RAF, stationed at Edenmore Whiteabbey. I was in the RAF for nine years and had a few postings around the world, but it was Whiteabbey that I ended settling down in. I worked in Aldergrove for a few years too, and Stormont," says Derrick.

"A year after I moved to Northern Ireland, I met a girl, Margaret, and we got married three years later in 1960. We had four children, eight grandchildren and 54 wonderful years of marriage together until February 18, 2015.

"Margaret had a brain haemorrhage and died. It was a shock - I didn't know what to do with myself.

"All I did was go out in the car every day, just like a zombie, like Groundhog Day - going for a run in the car, coming home, reading the paper, then going to bed."

Derrick's daughters were worried about him and decided to research some local clubs for him to get involved in. His youngest daughter, Una, came across Newtownabbey Senior Citizens' Forum, which received almost £250,000 of National Lottery funding from Big Lottery Fund last year. The money is being used for the +Five-0 And On The Go project, which is reducing social isolation and improving health and wellbeing for people over the age of 50 in the Newtownabbey and Antrim area.

Robert McQuiston, who runs the group, invited Derrick to come along - and although Derrick needed an initial push to walk through the doors, he hasn't looked back since.

"Coming to this club is companionship for a start - I was accepted straight away, and then naturally you make friends," he says. "I've only missed two Tuesdays in the last two years. Great bunch of lads, good conversationalists, good laughter.

"We go on little trips together, somebody organises an activity or brings in a person to give us a talk. It's interesting, it keeps your brain active and I would miss it if it was not here.

"I come to an art class on a Monday as well, which I'm not very good at, but I enjoy the craic. The lads do a spot of singing when we're painting, and we have a good laugh about that, plus you get a free cup of tea!

"I like my trips away too. We were in the Punjana tea factory a while ago, we've been to museums and I've been on day trips to Portrush, Ballycastle and Rathlin Island."

Robert McQuiston, project co-ordinator for +Five-0 And On The Go, says: "This project is making a huge difference to the lives of older people in the area.

"We are also seeing that their families and friends, who may have had concerns about their health and wellbeing, are less anxious after seeing them socially and physically active, taking up new hobbies and meeting new friends. Many of the people taking part have also taken up leadership and voluntary roles. Being able to help others has given them a different perspective and shown them what they are capable of, so their self-esteem is improving too."

Derrick has got his spark back being part of the lads at the club. He said he's found a purpose in life again.

"Before, I was a bit too deep in my wife's death and every day was the same, but the lads here have lifted me," he adds.

"I really look forward to getting up, getting out and coming here. The main thing is, its company and once you've got company you can tell your ails to somebody else and they might put you on the right track. I feel very lucky.

"My daughters say they have noticed the difference in me too. They were worried about me, I think, but now my children have to make an appointment to see me and they say my life is far better than theirs."

Ena Kerr (77), from Londonderry, has battled cancer twice and struggled with painful chronic health conditions. At her lowest ebb, she didn’t even have the strength or confidence to leave the house. But now she’s found joy in life again thanks to a project that recently received more than £3m in National Lottery funding.

Ena was a regular at her local GP surgery because of long-term health conditions, but she was also lonely and needed help beyond medication.

“I have type 2 diabetes, angina and degeneration of the spine, so I’ve always had a lot to cope with,” she says.

“But it was the cancer that really started me on a downward spiral — I battled cancer twice within a couple of years, unrelated to each other.

“I had cancer of the womb, and had a hysterectomy. Then I discovered I had breast cancer, and had a mastectomy. Both times I was very lucky that I caught them early and I didn’t have to have chemotherapy, but having the surgery was a big thing to process and it was very hard mentally.

“I even had my funeral arranged because I was so sure that I didn’t have long left, and it’s always in the back of my mind that it might come back.”

Ena’s close friends and family helped her get through it, but she still felt alone and started on a downward spiral of becoming more and more isolated.

“I stopped leaving the house because I was in pain — standing and walking is very sore.

“I got used to going on the internet and ordering everything online. The less I talked to people, the more down I felt, and the less I felt like talking to anyone.

“I’ve three children. The two boys have moved away, but my daughter, Lynda, lives nearby and is always checking on me.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like answering the phone, but Lynda will always turn up and tell me off because she’s worried about me.

“I couldn’t get by without my dog, a miniature Yorkshire called Daisy Mhor — she’s four and a half and keeps me company. I’m able to take her for very short walks, but apart from that my only motivations for wanting to get out were going to the GP, the chemist and buying food.”

As a regular to the GP, Ena’s doctor thought she could benefit from attending some classes in the community to get her out of the house, get active and help reduce her loneliness.

The GP surgery was taking part in a pilot social prescribing project run by the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum in Londonderry that used GPs to link older patients who could benefit from non-medical support through activities in their community.

The project helped to improve the patients’ health but also reduced pressure on GPs by decreasing the amount of unnecessary appointments being made by people who needed alternative care.

The pilot was so successful that it was recently awarded just over £3m of National Lottery cash from the Big Lottery Fund to develop a three-year project to support adults across Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum will lead on the project in Northern Ireland, which will work with 60 GP practices in partnership with the Healthy Living Centre Alliance and the five health and social care trusts.

Ena wasn’t aware of classes within her community which could help her and wouldn’t have had the confidence to sign up for them without the push from her GP.

“I was unsure about the scheme, but I thought I’d give it a go,” she says.

“Bronagh, from the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum, came to see me and we decided that keep-fit classes would be good for my mobility and get me out of the house.

“I was nervous, so I started with one-to-one classes with Davy. He was brilliant and I surprised myself by finding that I loved going. I haven’t lost any weight, but I’m able to move better and it lifts my mood so much. I feel great about myself. After six weeks, I joined a group class.

“We have so much fun. It’s the highlight of my week. The group is so welcoming. They want to talk to me and listen to me, and I feel part of something.

“My health is improving — my blood sugar levels are better and I’m in less pain. I haven’t been going to the doctor as much and I feel so inspired by Davy that I’m doing exercises at home now too.

“My confidence has grown so much, and it’s all thanks to the doctor referring me. I would never have had the confidence to join one without that push.

“I’ve decided to join a second class too, so I’ll now be going twice a week.

“I would also love to do a night class at tech, like English A-level. I feel like I could do that now — if it wasn’t for my bad memory.

“I lost my cheekiness for a while, but I’m feeling like myself again, and I have my spark back.

“I’m feeling younger and although I still have lows, I’m not hiding away as I much as before.

“I put my lipstick on and I look out at the world with a smile — my daughter taught me that.”

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