Rural cocooning: ‘I’ve been self-isolating for the last 10 years’

Volunteers are bringing meals to isolated older people during the Covid-19 pandemic

Demand for Meals on Wheels in Newmarket on Fergus in Co. Clare has increased 300% since the lockdown was introduced but the community banded together and met the demand. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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At a time when people cannot gather in numbers, communities are still coming together to help each other. At the Obair office in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, the local community centre, demand for their meals-on-wheels service has risen from 60 per day to 200 since the order to stay at home came into place. They are delivering Monday to Friday.

“We started 15 years ago with delivering 10 meals locally in Newmarket,” manager Siobhán O’Driscoll says. Like everyone else, she is wearing a mask and gloves, and has stepped through a shoe-sanitiser box before entering the building. Prior to Covid-19, Obair operated two routes a day, throughout southeast Clare and going as far as Ennis. They are now running six routes a day, with more new calls coming in every day, asking for additional meal drops.

The local garage, Halpins, is donating diesel to fuel the delivery vans. Teachers who can’t go to school and restaurant owners who can’t open are among those who have volunteered to help with driving and meal-drops and assisting with the food production.

“Most of our usual volunteers who do the drops are cocooning themselves, as most of them are past retirement age,” O’Driscoll explains.

On Easter Monday, driver Niamh Hickey and Imelda Ward are preparing for the first run through southeast Clare. Hickey’s usual job is as a secondary school teacher. Kathleen Healy, who runs the now-closed local Hunters Lodge, a bar, restaurant and guesthouse, is another of the new volunteers. “I’m doing this because I consider myself fit and healthy, and I want to do something to help,” she says, brushing aside her own troubles about the total cessation of her business.

Imelda Ward delivers a hot dinner to Willy Slattery and biscuit treats for his two dogs Collie and Scooby. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Imelda Ward delivers a hot dinner to Willy Slattery and biscuit treats for his two dogs Collie and Scooby. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Everyone gets a main meal, and a choice of either soup or a dessert, and everyone gets bread

The HSE has given €100,000 towards the cost of preparing additional meals, and associated costs. The masks everyone is wearing, and which have to be replaced every four hours, cost €1,500 alone for 1,000 – that works out at €1.50 a mask.

Inside Obair, head chef Erica Long is busy finishing the first of three cooks for the day. “Everyone gets a main meal, and a choice of either soup or a dessert, and everyone gets bread,” she explains. Today, it’s mushroom soup and beef stew. The bread is always home-made brown bread, and the homemade dessert today is pear and almond tart. Everyone gets a thick slice of bread and a big slice of tart.

Due to the need to social distance in a small kitchen, baker Anne Finucane comes in first early in the mornings, and gets the baking done before the other cooks arrive. “Trying to keep two metres away from each other in the kitchen is definitely the biggest challenge,” Long says, who oversees two other chefs.

I’m following the first run of the day – starting at 11am – in my car. The other two will begin at 1pm and 3pm. Once we are on our way, Long and her staff will make a second and then a third batch of mushroom soup and beef stew. Food is delivered in compostable boxes, which is also an additional cost. Hygiene is a priority: at the moment, nothing that the meals are served in can be used again by Obair. “Hot boxes” in each van keep the food warm, and cool boxes are used keep the bread and tarts fresh. Recipients pay €6 for each meal.

There are some 20 drops to be done, many to very rural locations, and some are to new customers. Despite the help of Eircode, there are invaluable additional directions for various houses written on a sheet. These are references to the landmarks that punctuate all rural communities; churches, challenging stretches of road, hurling grounds, schools, crossroads and ruined buildings.

“Small bungalow on left with white bay windows after hurling field, before bad bend.”

“You come to the large building where school was, continue to last bungalow before next crossroads.”

“First house on left on this road. Opposite ruin.”

Isolated population

The drill is that driver Niamh Hickey remains in the van while Imelda Ward gets out the food and delivers it to the customer, at a safe distance. “Some people will talk to you, and some will be a bit shy,” she says.

I try to keep a geographical grasp on where we are going, but am soon clueless among the tangle of boreens and unmarked roads and the complex network of back roads that hint at a dispersed and isolated population.

Dan Hogan, 89, has been ‘self- isolating for 10 years’ and says coronavirus hasn’t led to much of a difference in his day-to-day life. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Dan Hogan, 89, has been ‘self- isolating for 10 years’ and says coronavirus hasn’t led to much of a difference in his day-to-day life. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Ward knows everyone on her run, and has a friendly, warm, tailored question for everyone

The first call is to Dan Hogan’s farm. He’s 89, and still has his sense of humour. “I’ve been self-isolating for the last 10 years,” he says drily, standing in the door of an outbuilding.

By about the third call of the day, it is clear Ward is doing a job that far exceeds simply dropping food to those who need it. She knows everyone on her run, and has a friendly, warm, tailored question for everyone. She knows who will come to the door for a chat, and who prefers for the food to be left on a small table outside the front door, or in a box.

“Isn’t it a grand day today?”

“When will all this be over, do you think?”

“Did your daughter leave some shopping for you?”

Ward’s evident warmth even extends to her customer’s pets. At the stop for Willie Slattery (83), two dogs run up to her once she gets out of the van, wagging their tails vigorously. They’re Scooby and Collie, and it turns out that she brings each of them a dog biscuit every day.

Slattery lives in a small house built literally in the shadow of the dramatic 18th-century estate house he grew up in. The Big House is now partially ruined; Ward says that apparently the Land Commission divided up the estate. Evidence of our history is suddenly vivid in this low-key part of rural Ireland.

“If I got the virus, it would finish me off,” Slattery says bluntly, standing cautiously in the door, while the dogs wait patiently for their biscuits.

“It costs nothing to be nice,” Ward says, getting back into the van.

Mike Mullins is in his barn, lambing, when the food van arrives. Hens are chasing tiny lambs around for their avian amusement. Mullins was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and has been receiving meals since then.

“The cancer didn’t knock me back a bit,” he says. “It’s the same now with this coronavirus. I am not afraid of getting it. I have just accepted it. Life is really no different for me now doing this cocooning than as it was before. I am here on my own every day anyway.”

No self-pity

As we travel along the side roads, and have brief, socially distanced conversations with the men and women who receive these meals, many of whom live alone, some commonalities emerge. These people, many of whom are in their 80s, and even early 90s, are tough. They are totally without self-pity. They say, no, they are not lonely. They are resourceful and resilient, speaking of walking around their houses every day for exercise. They have spouses in nursing homes or who are dead. They have children in other counties or countries, and they are surviving the Covid-19 public health challenge with dignity and grace, and this is part due to the support of countrywide community initiatives such as receiving meals-on-wheels.

Mary Brady receives a hot meal from Imelda Ward. Brady has been living alone since her husband moved into a nearby nursing home. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Mary Brady receives a hot meal from Imelda Ward. Brady has been living alone since her husband moved into a nearby nursing home. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
It’s not too bad here by myself. And when it is over, I am looking forward to my family taking me out for a drive

Mary Brady (87) lives alone, and her husband, who has dementia, is in a nursing home that she can’t now visit. She is standing inside her porch, and opens the sliding door to talk.

“I haven’t been out since this started, but I walk around my house,” she says. “And sometimes I can talk to my husband on the phone. Getting these meals every day is absolutely wonderful, and there is great variety. It’s not too bad here by myself. And when it is over, I am looking forward to my family taking me out for a drive.”

After leaving Mary Brady’s home, Ward remarks that something as simple as receiving meals-on-wheels is all it takes to keep someone older living alone safe in their home.

The man who lives in a cottage at the side of the road is too shy to come out. Instead, he opens the door cautiously, puts out a hand, and pulls the bag inside, remaining unseen. Some people are talkative. He’s not one. But he’s getting the meals he needs, just the same.

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