‘It is only me and the four walls’

The hour a week Alone volunteers spend with older people brings life-enhancing human connection

Martha Godsil outside her home in Artane, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Martha Godsil outside her home in Artane, Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

It might seem an obvious fact that not all young people are the same or have similar needs, just because they share an age demographic. The same is true of people at the older end of life’s scale: not everyone has similar needs, and everyone is an individual, no matter what their age.

There are very many older people who live full, independent and rich lives. But for those who do not, whether through lack of family support, income or good health, services such as those offered by Alone are invaluable.

Martha Godsil is 87 and lives in a small flat in Artane, north Dublin. She grew up in East Wall and lived in England for 46 years. She returned 19 years ago because, “My heart was always in Ireland.”

Until her health deteriorated in recent years, Godsil availed of all the things she loved doing. “I liked walking and scenery,” she says. “I’d bring my flask and sandwiches and go to Howth and walk and have a picnic. I like the sea.”

She has not been able to do that for some years now: she is on her third pacemaker, has osteoporosis, and can no longer walk very far unaided. Since losing her mobility, she has also lost much of her independence.

The space outside Godsil’s front door is bright with carefully tended flowerpots and, whenever the weather allows, she sits outside to watch people going about their business and to feel connected with a wider community.“It’s fine in the summer because I can sit out. But on rainy days and in the winter I have to sit inside. It’s only me and the four walls, day after day.”

Godsil used to have several friends with whom she socialised when she returned from England, but many of them are now dead. Her husband died more than 30 years ago. Most of her family is in in England.

She is surrounded by neighbours, but they rarely drop in. She has one sister who visits once a week, she receives one hour of home help a week, and someone brings her to Mass on Sundays. Other than that, her days are very quiet. Or, as Godsil says, “very monotonous”. For very many years, her sister was her only social visitor every week.

It was her niece who contacted Alone, the Dublin-based charity, on Godsil’s behalf, two years ago. Since then, a volunteer has visited Godsil once a week. Apart from the company, what she welcomes most is the opportunity to get out of the home in which she spends so much time by herself. “We go for drives down the coast road, or for lunch, or shopping.”

One of Alone’s recent initiatives was to set up penpal communications between older people in Ireland and the US. Áine Duffy, communications and campaigns co-ordinator with Alone, says: “We put a piece in the Montana Senior News, profiling three people Alone work with, with their pictures. We invited people to write to them.”

Letters

So far, Godsil has received two letters and a card from the US. One is from a widow, 76-year-old June, who was born in England and has lived in the US since marrying an American. June chats about her life, family and health, and ends her letter by writing, “I hope you will reply. I would love to hear from you. I hope this finds you well and that it helps you knowing that someone cares about you from across the Atlantic.”

Godsil intends to write back. She takes out some postcards of a hotel at Woodenbridge, in Co Wicklow, which she will send first, as an acknowledgment, and then a letter.

The postcards of the Wicklow hotel are Godsil’s souvenirs from the annual summer holiday that Alone organises for some of the people it works with. This year, the holiday was in Wexford.

Alone also organises an annual Christmas party and a dinner dance in the autumn.

The group supports some 300 people a week in Dublin, between volunteer visits, help with housing, and an outreach organisation that campaigns for better services on a range of issues, such as elder abuse.

“Knocking on older people’s doors to make sure they have food and fuel and that they haven’t fallen over is great, but that is a very basic level of engagement,” says Duffy.

“The older person mightn’t be able to go to the bank, or do their shopping. They would welcome the opportunity to go somewhere and do something, so that they’re not looking at the four walls all the time. Visitors are nice but it’s nicer to be brought somewhere.”

Operational costs for Alone last year were €1 million. Its funding comes entirely from donations and legacies; it receives nothing from the State.

“The good thing about not being a State body is that we are in a strong position to speak out about older people’s rights, because we are an independent voice,” says Duffy.

“We work with the most vulnerable of people, many of whom are isolated and lonely. That can be as damaging to health as smoking and obesity. And we know there is a lot of hidden homelessness at present, where older people have to leave their homes because they can’t afford the rent any more.”

It is a policy of Alone that volunteer visits last for an hour, but Godsil’s volunteer often spends an hour and a half with her; time that she greatly looks forward to every week. Godsil describes her visits from the Alone volunteer as her “lifeline”, explaining, “I don’t get depressed, but I get lonely.”

Alone stresses that volunteers who visit are not home helps or carers; their role is exclusively one of social support. See alone.ie or call 01-6791032.

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