A year living alone: ‘I have found the lockdowns soul-destroying’

Tim Foley  who lives in Cork city: ‘It is hard to pick yourself up after the restrictions are eased a small bit and bang, everything is closed again.’ Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
'I have found the lockdowns soul-destroying': Five people recount their experience of living alone during the three lockdowns

The lifting of restrictions later this month will come as a welcome relief to many, but in particular those who live alone. The latest census figures in 2016 recorded 399,815 people living alone in the State. Since March last year this cohort has navigated and for the most part survived three lockdowns on their own. These are some of their stories.

Tim Foley (55) lives in Cork city 
I haven’t worked for a couple of years; my hearing is virtually gone, I am very hard of hearing. Lockdown has been very hard going. I’m always quiet, and I’m even quieter now this last year.

I used to like going out; I would socialise a couple of times a week to meet friends. We’d go for a pint. Even when I meet my friends out now, to be honest, with my hearing being so bad and everyone wearing a mask, it is even harder to make out what they are saying.

Some days over the last year when the weather was bad, you’d look out at dark skies and it’s cold and it’s raining, my head would be down between my knees. I just have to pick myself up. I’d get a heavy jacket or a brolly and I’d get out. If I sat here just dwelling on it, I’d be in a bad way.

I was always a very early riser. I get up at 6am or 6.30am and I am out the door for a walk, no matter what the weather is. The walk is very important to me. It just perks me up in the morning. I wouldn’t do the same walk every morning. I have three or four walks. I might do each of them twice a week. I’m home at 10.30am or 11am, and depending on the weather, I am in for the day then really.

I got the internet in at Christmas; my sister was pushing me, and I got Netflix, which I never had before – that is a bit of a help. Other than that, I read a bit. I like to keep myself occupied. I do crosswords. I wouldn’t be a lover of the telly, but with Netflix, I’d watch a few films.

It is hard to pick yourself up after the restrictions are eased a small bit and bang, everything is closed again

How has dating been? Oh Jesus, no, no. There’s nothing at all happening. If I was meeting anyone – I don’t do anything online – it would be in the cafe or in the bar in the evening. I prefer to meet people face to face. It’s very hard to talk to someone now when we all are sitting two or three metres apart. You’re more or less sitting on your own, really.

I have found the lockdowns soul-destroying. It is hard to pick yourself up after the restrictions are eased a small bit and bang, everything is closed again. It would put you in a bad mood, and it is so hard to get out of that mood. A fourth lockdown would destroy me.

Helen Beatty: ‘I definitely feel left out of the public narrative.’
Helen Beatty: ‘I definitely feel left out of the public narrative.’

Helen Beatty (38) lives near Beaufort village in Co Kerry 
Living by myself this last year has actually worn me down. The fact is that when you live alone, you have less resources and you have less people to rely on. It’s tough. My partner Mike died in November 2017; he had a brain haemorrhage. It was very sudden. He was 44 at the time. We had been together about 10 years.

The worst part of lockdown is that I’m from Leixlip originally and I would always have gone home a lot. I really miss my family

I definitely feel left out of the public narrative, which is so focused on family. I am one household and I couldn’t mix with anyone else. There is a big assumption made by Government that you have other people in your household to turn to.

I have felt lonely a lot of the time. For example, I hurt my leg recently, and wasn’t that mobile. If there was someone else here I could ask them if they could get me a cup of tea or reach for that for me. But you have to do all that yourself.

I have been out of work the last year, so financially things are tough too. The worst part of lockdown is that I’m from Leixlip originally and I would always have gone home a lot. I really miss my family.

What has kept me going is that I love where I live. You can hop in the car and go to the beach any time you like it within 10 minutes. You can walk up the road and there are baby lambs in the fields. I know more people down here than I ever did in Leixlip, where I used to own an apartment. I now know way more people down here.

I am definitely trying to be resilient so I can keep going. I am trying to appreciate the small things: go out in the garden and see daffodils; to be mindful, and to live in the moment.

Ronan McCarthy: ‘Lockdown has affected my behaviour. You can end up going three or four days without talking to anyone or saying anything.’
Ronan McCarthy: ‘Lockdown has affected my behaviour. You can end up going three or four days without talking to anyone or saying anything.’

Ronan McCarthy (31) lives in Wexford town  
I work in the county council. My normal job is in finance, but during the first lockdown, I was one of the staff working in the Community Call Centre. Sometimes that was very stressful because you’d be talking to people in far worse situations than yourself; finding ways to decompress without anyone else in the house to talk to was tough.

Lockdown has affected my behaviour. You can end up going three or four days without talking to anyone or saying anything. I’d say my social skills have decreased somewhat. It has been tough. You can feel like you’re on a space station or something like that; you’re just observing everything on the outside, without a whole lot going on.

I figured out early on that a road I didn’t want to go down was to spend every day in my PJs in my bedroom. That would make everything 10 times worse. It’s important to make the effort; have the shower, get dressed as if you were going to work. Try and make a space for working, space for eating, space for relaxing. It’s important for the brain. It breaks up the day, otherwise the day can just feel so long if you are in the same space the whole time.

Most of my friends don’t live locally, but we found an app for playing poker online, and we’d speak on Google Meets or Zoom, and we’d meet like that once a week. That actually was brilliant and it’s something we will definitely be doing long term. We get on really well, but because we had all moved apart, we had drifted out of contact. But now we have this extra free time and extra motivation because we have no other socialising to do.

We spend a couple of hours on the call every week playing poker. I think if we were just to be speaking to each other, it would get exhausting within half an hour. But since we’re playing cards, it makes it much easier to have a natural kind of conversation; to be doing something together, and have something to talk about when the conversation goes flat.

Living alone through lockdown this last year has changed me in a good few ways

I am in a long-distance relationship, but that hasn’t been affected by lockdown; she lives in New Zealand. I went out to see her in December 2019, so that was good timing.

The second lockdown was a very low point. I felt a bit hopeless really. I didn’t really feel we were making progress towards anything. I also didn’t necessarily take as good care of myself as I do now. I am big into fitness and love running and cycling and I gave it up for five weeks. I didn’t do a thing. Which is very, very bad for me, whereas now I am a bit stricter with myself; you have to go out for the run and you are always glad you did afterwards.

Living alone through lockdown this last year has changed me in a good few ways, so I’ll be curious to see what elements of my behaviour will stick when it’s all over. I’m probably less confident than I was. But at the same time, when I do see co-workers – I probably see two or three people a week now, as we are hybrid working – I really value it.

For the brief time that the lockdowns stopped, I went out to shops and to cafes. It was just brilliant. It gave me a lot more joy than it used to. I am looking forward to going to a cafe or pub 20 times more than I ever did before.

Imelda Graham: ‘I have never gone so long in my life without seeing my children.’
Imelda Graham: ‘I have never gone so long in my life without seeing my children.’

Imelda Graham (67) lives near Kinnegad in Co Westmeath 
I live in Snow White’s cottage; it’s very isolated and very beautiful. My husband died a few years ago and my nearest neighbour is about an eight-minute walk away. The nearest shop is 7.5km away.

I’m quite happy and comfortable in my own company, but lockdown is different. It’s an emptiness rather than a loneliness. There is nothing to fill it. It’s an enforced loneliness, that is not by choice. I fell like I am in some dystopian novel.

I have never gone so long in my life without seeing my children: a daughter in Brussels, one son and his wife in London, another son and his wife in Canada, and a son in Galway. Weeks and weeks I’d usually spend with them. I miss them more and more. The longer this has gone on, I miss them more and more. I have a little grandson, he’ll be two in August. I haven’t seen him since he was four or five months old.

They were dark days and lockdown seemed endless with no end in sight

My work was in the early years education sector. The first couple of months in the first lockdown, I felt I needed to do something to keep myself going and to do something for other people. So I set up Zoom sessions for pre-schoolers online twice a week, and I did that for three months and it was lovely. I had lovely little children coming on my Zoom call and coming out into the garden with me and looking at the frogs. But I didn’t do that for the other lockdowns.

I found January and February really hard. They were dark days and lockdown seemed endless with no end in sight. It was very hard to get out of bed in the mornings sometimes. Some days you’re just ticking the boxes on the routine and trying to do all the things you’re meant to be doing.

I look forward to going to the dump now, because I have a legitimate excuse to get out of the house with my rubbish, as I don’t have bin collection. I have a kind of routine to break up the week, and make Saturdays and Sundays different. I started making a time every day when I sit down and read for an hour, at about 4.30pm. I’m not sad all the time; I’m just very sad when I think of my kids and not being able to see them. Everything feels like it has been turned upside down.

Bill Grantham: ‘It was only after a while into lockdown that I realised I needed a routine.’
Bill Grantham: ‘It was only after a while into lockdown that I realised I needed a routine.’

Bill Grantham (63) lives in Tinahely, Co Wicklow 
My house is near the centre of the village so I don’t feel completely cut off, but my social life has changed substantially. Tinahely has three cafes and part of my daily routine before the pandemic was that I went to one or other of the cafes every morning and had my breakfast there. I’d see people there every day. Not necessarily friend friends, but I’d see people there; the people in the cafe, and have little chats. All of that part of my life has been closed. It has been quite hard, the lack of human contact and social contact.

Before the pandemic, I was living by myself but I always made a real effort about going out. I went to Dublin quite often, I was reviewing plays for a small magazine, Plays International. That got me up to town quite regularly and obviously all of that has stopped.

I do all my work at home anyway, so that hasn’t changed. I write. I’m working with an American producer on a science-fiction series for television, I’m also still in touch with people in California where I lived for 25 years.

In the colder, darker weather, I did feel the four walls closing in on me quite a lot. I watched movies. I have a lot of books, but I found it quite difficult to motivate myself to read as much as I would like to.

One change is that I have made myself quite disciplined about my daily habits; I am not necessarily the most disciplined person normally.

I thought that I would just become completely enclosed and not look after myself and get depressed and become half a person

I get up every morning at the same time, I make my meals. I sit at the table for my meals three times a day. I have a bath. I get dressed. I am quite capable of sitting round the house in my dressing gown all day, but I realise I actually should get dressed.

It was only after a while into lockdown that I realised I needed a routine. These little daily disciplines started as reflex and became necessity. By doing these things, even if there is nobody to see you doing them, I was internally making myself a member of the community; a citizen of the world. If I didn’t do these things, I thought that I would just become completely enclosed and not look after myself and get depressed and become half a person.

One of the reasons for needing structure is that it steers me away from deep troughs. During my adult life, I suffered from depression and had treatment for it. Now I have tools to spot it and not allow myself to sink into it. I have had some dark moments, but nothing that added up to a full-fledged depression.