Barbara (83): ‘I light candles because they make me feel somebody is here’
All the Lonely People: For Barbara, left behind by a faster and colder world, loneliness is a constant, unwelcome companion
‘Why do I light candles?” says Barbara. “I didn’t light them because you were coming. I light candles all the time, because when I look around I see something flickering and it’s like a person. Does that sound crazy? It’s just the movement. They just make me feel like somebody is here.”
We are sitting in Barbara’s well-kept kitchen in Lucan. She is neat and tidy, well-spoken, and looks younger than her 83 years, although she often moves about with the help of a stick. I’ve met her through the charity Alone, and she’s eager to talk to me about loneliness. “Two years ago, Alone saved my life,” she says.
Barbara is good company and has a lot of stories to tell. “When you’re talking to people the stories just come out,” she says.
She chose the kitchen for her chat, because the kitchen is usually a meeting point for people. “Not that my kitchen is ever a meeting point,” she says. “But it is today . . . So I do the make-up. I do the hair. I get dressed.”
There are days when she doesn’t get dressed, “when that doorbell never rings”.
Barbara has been on her own since her husband, Bernard, died 23 years ago. “I miss him and I will always miss him,” she says. Her daughter lives in the UK with her family. “She is a fabulous daughter,” says Barbara. “She tries to come over every six weeks, and those few days with her are just fantastic. I get up in the morning. I feel wonderful. I put on my make-up. I get dressed. We go out for lunch.”
She fetches a lovely note that her granddaughters left her after they visited last year. “I cried when I read that,” she says.
But the rest of the time Barbara has very limited contact with people. There are 45,000 people in Lucan, she says, but she doesn’t really know any of them apart from her cleaner and a kind neighbour across the road. “I don’t see her all of the time, but she watches my blinds and if they don’t open, she texts me or rings me to see if I’m okay.”
She makes an effort. Recently she had new neighbours move in and she went around with a box of chocolates. “He took the chocolates and never spoke a word to me since.” She has walked the length of Liffey Valley Shopping Centre “and no one spoke to me in all the time I did it”, she says.
People don’t make allowances. They try to “run you over” in their hurry to get by. “Even children don’t talk to you any more, because children are taught not to talk to strangers. If I see mothers and their children are very polite, I always say, ‘You should be so proud of your children, they are so polite’. But nobody talks back.”
There are no casual conversations now, she says, because “everyone has got things in their ears or they’re looking at their phone. The world is getting faster and faster. And the faster it gets, the less we’re going to have for people who are lonely.”
Days on end pass when Barbara speaks to no one but her daughter on the phone. “That’s not normal. It can’t be right.”
Born in England
Barbara was born in the English midlands in 1932. She tells me about trading rags for chickens with the rag-and-bone man. She tells me about the bombs dropping. “But the poor people helped each other,” she says. “You couldn’t be lonely then. You never locked your door. Everybody just came and went . . . People now, they have money, they have credit cards, but the caring is gone. Everyone locks the door and that’s their world.”
In the 1950s Barbara was married to a man who worked in the film industry, and she worked as accounts controller for the film studio. She had budgets of millions to manage. She had her daughter and they divorced. “Life teaches you a huge amount,” she says. “I’m not who I thought I was going to be. I’m a product of life.”
Later she married Bernard (“an amazing man”) and she and her daughter moved with him to Ireland: “a very different country then”. She remembers accompanying Bernard to Mass, even though she isn’t a Catholic. “I used to hold his hand. But you didn’t hold hands in church.”
Her daughter said: “Do you know what they call you in the town? They’re calling you ‘the lovers’.”
She smiles. “I always remember that.”
After 10 years of marriage, Bernard got sick. “He had shingles through his brain and I nursed him for three years and he died. The following year my mother got sick and I nursed her and she died. It was six years of not really living . . . But she was my mother. He was my husband. I would do it again.”
In the last few years she has been ill herself, and her mobility has suffered. A bout of pneumonia “took the spirit” out of her, she says. That’s how it happens: your children move away, your spouse dies, your mobility suffers and you find yourself alone.
Barbara prides herself on her self-sufficiency. Until recently she was a keen gardener, “but I can’t do it any more”. She does detailed budgets calculating her expenses. She’s too proud to use a walker, and when I visit she isn’t wearing the emergency pendant alarm Alone sourced for her, “because I’m vain and I knew you were coming”.
Over the years she has had to fight to keep her medical card and she worries so much about rent rises that she never calls her landlord. “If I have a problem, I’ve no one to ask. I sit at this table and think, What do I do?”
She hit her lowest point a couple of years ago. “I was so terribly low,” she says. “It felt like nobody cared and I got to that point where I didn’t care.”
Eventually a daughter of an old friend called Alone on her behalf. Barbara can’t say enough good things about the charity and thinks that any elderly person who feels isolated should contact them. They visited her, she availed of their befriending service, and they put her in touch with the district nurse, who arranged a respite stay for her in the hospice in Harold’s Cross.
There she went to the gym, went to lectures, ate with people, and came out “feeling absolutely fabulous.”
She also went on a holiday organised by Alone, where she met a woman in a similar situation. “She’s absolutely gorgeous and she phones me every week just for a chat. She’s very intelligent, has a great sense of humour and is really, really lovely. We met and just clicked.”
Even now, she’s a little more reluctant to call Alone than she should be. “I try hard not to ring them,” she says. (Áine Duffy from Alone chips in quickly. “You shouldn’t try not to ring us. That’s what we’re there for.”)
Society has made her feel like a burden, she says. She knows it shouldn’t be like this. She wonders if she lived in a small town or a different suburb of Dublin would things would be different. Loneliness changes people, she says. “I find it very difficult to go into a room where there are people. A certain something in me is gone.”
‘They don’t want to know’
She doesn’t think younger people realise how many older people are lonely. “When I’m in terrible pain, but I have my make-up on, people say, ‘Oh, you look great,’ ” she says. “They don’t know, because they don’t want to know and to a point I can understand that; people are very busy.”
What does the loneliness feel like? “It’s a horrible feeling because it can be solved by people caring . . . I feel disappointed in life. [You think] all those experiences and all the different people you met and you come to this?”
Everybody needs other people, she says. No one was meant to be alone, “talking to the four walls day after day . . . I’m a people person. I’m chatting away here like there’s no tomorrow. I love conversation. I’m having a conversation with you now and I’m loving it.”
But she thinks society has become colder. She thinks people should look out for their elderly neighbours. “Years ago old people were nurtured,” she says. “People were looked after and people cared about them. Now you have to keep trying, you have to keep going. Society doesn’t allow you to be a little old lady any more.”
- Alone is having a recruitment session for befriending volunteers on September 28th in Dublin. Call 01 6791032 or email firstname.lastname@example.org This week on the Life pages we have been exploring loneliness from every angle in our new series, All the Lonely People. All stories in this series are available on irishtimes.com/life-and-style
- If you have been affected by these issues, Alone helps older people who are homeless, socially isolated, living in deprivation or in crisis, 01-6791032 alone.ie. Jigsaw works with people aged 12-25, jigsaw.ie. The Samaritans are available 24-7 on freephone 116123