Helping isolated people comes naturally to most postal workers. “You’ll always get people who are lonely and all they’ll be looking for a bit of conversation,” says postman Joe McDonald. “In a lot of places they’re actually waiting for you to come to the door. They talk to you because they don’t see you as a threat when you have this logo.”
As a response to the current pandemic crisis, postal delivery staff are making a particular effort to check in on elderly and vulnerable people along their routes. Postal workers have also been instructed to connect isolated people with specific needs (such as grocery shopping) to the organisation for older people, Alone, and they’ll also collect anything they have to post and bring it to the depot and apply the correct postage free of charge. (They ask if householders can include the doorbell, the letterbox and the latch on their gate in their daily cleaning routine).
Joe McDonald has walked his north Dublin route for 15 years "on and off" and I'm following him to have a socially distanced chat as he checks in on older customers. It's a measure of how well-liked Joe is, that almost everyone we meet opens with some sort of joke. It's the Dublin way. "You're doing some work for a change?" calls out Eddie Keane (father of Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane) out walking his dog Glen.
'Can I have your autograph?'
Local butcher Batty Keaveney comes out of his shop to say, with a wink, “Oh, the postal service is desperate.”
“Can I have your autograph?” a woman named Carole asks Joe from across a carpark as she delivers Meals on Wheels.
The first house we call to is that of Maureen, a retired pharmacist in her late 70s. She’s eager to pay Joe for some stamps he brought her last week. He doesn’t want to take it, so she puts a fiver on the door mat and steps back. “It’s clean!” she promises.
He asks how she is. The last time she talked to Joe she was a bit panicked, she says. “I worried that I might have it or that Joe might have it . . . I’ve calmed down now. I’m doing very well.”
Indeed, she says she was almost enjoying things before the order came through that older people must cocoon. “I loved it last Friday. I was doing 100km in my car down the main road because there was no one else on it. I thought, ‘The guards will be after me now!’”
“Good job Patrick’s not using your full name,” says Joe.
She is well taken care of, she says. She has two phones and an emergency alarm she wears around her neck. She’s on the phone to people a lot, though she struggles to get the hang of FaceTime apps. She misses meeting people.
“Joe would tell you that normally I live out on the street. I have friends everywhere and I’ve been blessed with good health. On a normal day I’d head to town and go to Mass and meet a friend in a cafe . . . I’m really missing getting the bus and looking at the sea or going for a walk in the park and chatting with someone . . . But that’s a small price to pay if it saves someone’s life.”
Joe asks if she has enough gluten-free food. Maureen has coeliac disease. “I got a lot of coeliac stuff in already, so I’m doing fine,” she says. “And my neighbour is out shopping for me now.”
“We’ll be back for dinner so,” says Joe.
At the next house we call to, no one answers, which makes Joe worry. So he calls next door, where a nice woman named Geraldine tells us to wait a minute. She goes out to her back garden and finds her neighbour, 87-year-old John, out mowing his lawn. She’s keeping an eye on him, she says. Yesterday, she and her kids did some baking and dropped it into him.
“Adam’s not good at cracking eggs but I am,” says five-year-old Ellie of her seven-year old brother.
“She’s very modest,” says Geraldine, a civil servant currently juggling childcare with working from home.
We go back into John, who is now at his doorstep. “This man is adored in this parish,” says John of Joe. “It’s nice to have someone calling who you can call by their Christian name instead of ‘Mr’.”
“I’ve never been called ‘Mr’ in my life,” says Joe.
Joe asks how he’s doing. “I’m coping and I’m not coping. I’ve excellent neighbours . . . Geraldine got some stuff for me . . . And the GAA club are brilliant.”
But he’s also a bit annoyed. “I don’t know why auld fellas like myself who enjoy good health aren’t allowed go down and play cards in the GAA club. Why can’t I move around and go out to the shops to get a paper for myself?”
As we walk on, we meet another person that Joe knows who should really be cocooning. “For feck’s sake I’m sick of it,” she says. “I find this over-70s thing a pain in the neck . . . I find it extremely difficult not to walk around the block even. I would be on the beach or down at the park every single day of my life.”
Is she not worried about catching the virus? “I would be worried but there’s no point. I’m getting on with my life.”
Joe tells me that she’s not the only older person who isn’t entirely following orders. There’s another lady who keeps asking him in for a cup of tea and when he says he can’t, she says, “I’ve the walls bleached so it’ll all be okay.”
We call to a woman named Paula who jokingly complains that one of her Mother's Day cards was late coming from England. "Blame the Royal Mail not us!" says Joe.
He asks is everything okay with her. “It’s a bit horrible that I can’t get out,” she says. “We’re very lucky that the weather is nice and we can get out in the garden. I’m lucky we have a garden.”
“Soon I’ll be in my shorts,” says Joe.
“But you wear your shorts always,” says Paula, which makes me wonder if Joe has dressed up for The Irish Times.
She’s stoical about having to cocoon. “You have to think of other people, it’s not just me.”
What is she doing with her time? “I can watch Mass on the computer but it’s not the same . . . I read. I watch television.”
“You make chocolate cakes,” says Joe.
“He called the other day when I was making a chocolate cake,” she explains.
“She didn’t offer me a slice,” says Joe sadly.
“Do you want a bit of chocolate cake?” she asks. “I made too much.”
At a nearby apartment block, Joe hands some free An Post postcards (the postage is fully paid) in a ground-floor window. Rose, whose flat it is, comes out for a socially distanced chat on the doorstep.
"How's himself?" asks Joe. "Does he still think Kildare are going to win the World Cup this year?"
She laughs. Rose’s husband has had a stroke and Rose cares for him. She says that they’re doing okay.
“Do you need anything?” asks Joe.
“Maybe the paper someday, if you’re around,” she says. “Other than that, we have a little carer coming in and she’s very good to us.”
Rose misses getting out of the house and having visitors. “We have no children of our own, but we have nephews and nieces who are great to us and we have great neighbours.”
What is she doing with her time? “I just keep rubbing and cleaning!” she says. “There’s not a germ in the place. I do a bit of knitting and a little reading.”
“They all love their wine around here,” says Joe.
“No, I don’t!” says Rose, pretending to be offended. “I love a sup of whiskey.”
Rose and Joe begin talking about the neighbours. There’s a woman that Joe is worried about. Rose tells him that she’s fine, that she heard from her earlier. There’s an active phone network of senior citizens in the neighbourhood. “We look out for each other,” she says. She talks with affection of a Mongolian neighbour who drops things in to her and took Rose’s bins out without even being asked. “She’s an amazing person,” she says.
“Which paper do you want?” says Joe before we go (he refuses to take money for it).
“The Irish Independent,” she says.
“Go for the other one,” says Joe, gesturing at me and Bryan the photographer. “You’ll hurt their feelings.”
Mary, a former post mistress, answers her door with a phone in her hand. She’s missing golf (“my therapy”) and is filling her time with housekeeping and phone conversations. She was just talking to a golfing friend, she tells us, who said, “I’m going out today, I don’t care.” She sighs. “She’s in her 80s.”
She’s obeying the rules herself. “I wasn’t too pleased about it, but I have a daughter who’s making sure I do what I’m told. We all have to do our bit.”
Is she worried about the virus? “I’m sitting looking out and it’s a gorgeous day and I think, ‘Sure what are they all talking about?’ But then I watch the television and see a lady who can’t get her breath and it’s a terrible thing. My daughter, her little fella was born premature and he had pneumonia twice. He had a cough there for a good while, so he went for the test a week yesterday. And she hasn’t got the results. His cough has improved. But it was a worry.”
The postal service was always a lifeline for people, she says. "I was originally brought up in the country and you'd see no one but the postman. And we have an extra nice postman... Joe's a great little boy."
Joe, for the record, is 61. Then she says, “Sorry, I have you on the doorstep, sure come in.”
“We can’t come in!” says Joe.
“I forgot!” says Mary.
Next, Joe calls into Davina and Dave, a couple with two kids, partly because he wants to ask after an older neighbour. He explains why I'm with him so they start making jokes at his expense. Why? Because this is Ireland and this means they like him a lot.
“He doesn’t move very fast, does he?” says Davina.
“He’s dressed very well today,” says Dave. “He’s normally a dirtbird.”
"You're in your pyjamas!" says Joe. David is a Dublin Bus driver. "We're only allowed six people downstairs and there are stickers on all the seats to show people where to sit."
Davina is a Montessori teacher and can't work right now. "I'm cracking," she says. "I'm practically talking to a tub of Milton [sterilising fluid]."
“You’re not on your own,” says Joe.
“I wish I was,” says Davina. “There’s nothing worse than looking out at the sun shining and not a child on the road playing.” Recently, she says, a neighbour ran bingo for all the kids. She points at some chalk on the footpaths. “That’s where the kids were to stand.”
She’s a little worried about the effect the crisis is going to have on the children. Their son was sick and was referred for testing, but he feels better now. “His homework every week was to rewrite a newspaper article in his own words, and it was the coronavirus every week. I don’t know if it’s frightening them.”
“How’s Shirley?” asks Joe of their older neighbour.
Davina says she thinks she’s quite worried. “This morning she wanted to show me something. She held it up against the glass so I could read it.”
To Joe’s pleasant surprise he sees Shirley is gardening when we leave David and Davina’s driveway. Shirley is 84. “Am I the oldest person in this estate?” she asks Joe from a sensible distance.
“I didn’t want to say!” says Joe.
Shirley is feeling a lot better. She apologises to Joe for being so nervous when they spoke previously, but he tells her not to be fretting about him. She was particularly worried, she says, because one of her grandchildren has the virus. He’s doing well, she says, “but I’d worry that if I got it, I wouldn’t survive it”.
Joe asks how she’s doing now. “I’m managing fine really,” she says. “But I’d normally be out walking every day. I have quite a few friends of my own age and we meet up for lunch.”
She feels lucky to have family close who shop for her. “They’re fantastic,” she says. “And Davina is fantastic. She keeps an eye on me and drops over dinners. I’m managing well but I find the loneliness hard.”
She keeps in touch with people by phone. “I’m on one daughter’s WhatsApp which sometimes I can barely understand because it’s in a completely different language. I have to get them to explain it to me. Did you know that ‘dece’ has quite a few meanings?”
To pass the time she does crosswords (for which she is thankful for the Irish Times) and watches the soaps. “And I’m doing a bit of gardening to use up some energy. There’s a bit of colour coming into the garden now which makes a difference.”
She has a few letters for Joe to post. “I have to tell you,” says Shirley. “Joe is just fantastic. I’ll make him blush now, but he shows a real interest which is wonderful for someone living on their own. He keeps an eye on everybody and in the good times I get the odd hug from him. I miss the hugs but there’ll be double hugs after this.”