The one “horrible” part of the first lockdown in the coronavirus pandemic for Dublin grandmother Cherry Keane (76) was being separated from her two young granddaughters for three months.
“It was a physical pain not seeing them,” she says of Grace (seven) and Sarah-Jane (four), whose home in Raheny was well beyond the two- and then five-kilometre travel restrictions from her house in Rathfarnham.
However, she says, “I would have found it even worse if they were coming to the other side of the window and waving in at me because we have a very warm relationship.”
The one thing that made the situation bearable was being introduced to FaceTime by her only child, Brian.
Grace had gone to her grandmother’s house for sleepovers from an early age, “and we would have quite a close relationship. I know she missed me as much as I missed her,” says Cherry. “I could see Grace’s face during lockdown – there was like a hungry expression in her eyes when we talked, which I know was reflected on my side.
“When we were chatting away, she’d say, ‘shall we go onto the swing, Nana?’ and she’d bring me out into the back and sit on the swing. She’d say, ‘shall we go higher?’ and it was as if the two of us were on the swing. It was very interactive, which was brilliant. And Sarah-Jane would pop in and out.”
The next thing the two little bodies pressed into me; it was beautiful. That's what you miss
These video calls were the high spot of the day for Cherry, who lives alone yet found lockdown “quite easy” in every other respect. Having embraced retirement since 2010, “I am pretty self-contained,” she says. “I just self-minded.”
But the experience from March to June “taught me to really sympathise with people whose grandchildren are abroad”. It is fine to see them on a video link, “but to actually touch and cuddle and hear inflections of their voice, it is completely different. “You know the smell of children and the vitality of them – that can’t come across with a screen in between.
“The first time I went over after the lockdown, I walked into the house and as soon as I saw them, I just dropped the bags and opened my arms, I did it automatically. The girls are so well trained, I remember them looking up at my son, and he just said ‘ah, go ahead’. The next thing the two little bodies pressed into me; it was beautiful. That’s what you miss.”
Cherry didn’t need a pandemic to remind her of her own mortality and she is all too aware that enforced separation robs her of precious time with the girls. “I am an older grandparent. I know that the chances of my seeing them into adulthood from an age point of view are small. So, for me, every time I see them is really, really important.” She is very conscious of making memories for them.
“I would like them to remember me being fun, and a player – in games and stuff like that – and really, really loving them.”
Having done everything that she should to keep herself well and out of circulation for months, she says she would feel very deprived at the thought she could be in lockdown again.
The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly cruel to grandparents. Of course, this year’s National Grandparents’ Day on Tuesday October 6th can have none of the joyful trooping into schools, hand-in-hand with grandchildren, that has marked it on previous occasions.
Perhaps most deprivations fade into insignificance when compared with the cascade of heart-wrenching stories earlier in the year of older people dying in hospitals and care homes – and now, we’re being warned this could happen again. Yet the untold stories of loss and pain around continuing separations, cancelled family events and lack of human touch are mounting for older people as we’re seven months and counting into this pandemic.
You might be keeping people alive on the one hand, only to see their health suffer on the other
These are experiences that chip away not only at older people’s quality of life but also their health. Advocates argue that more attention and consideration need to be given now to this annexed generation. For a start, the majority of those approximately 32,000 people who need the support of nursing homes have not been allowed out of those centres since March, with visitors severely restricted too, as management guard against anything that might endanger their infection controls.
Then, there are about 160,000 people over 65 living alone, according to CSO figures, for whom restrictions can be particularly challenging and detrimental.
"There's having a life and having a good life," says Sarah Lennon, executive director of Sage Advocacy (sageadvocacy.ie). She sees her organisation's role as trying to keep the idea of balance on the table, while not wanting to put people in harm's way.
“Obviously we don’t want to be in anything like the situation there was earlier in the year when so many deaths occurred. Yet in time people will begin to die of other things, including loneliness and other health-related conditions, and mental health will suffer. You might be keeping people alive on the one hand, only to see their health suffer on the other.”
Sage, which is “looking for innovation and more flexibility amidst the very onerous restrictions we’re under”, is setting up a forum for people with family members in nursing homes.
The big issues with Covid-19 and the restrictions are predominantly around two things, says Prof Rose Anne Kenny, principal investigator and founder of The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Trinity College, Dublin: "The impact on an individual's health and the impact on an individual's ability to contribute to society."
Scientific research shows that things such as engagement with other people, social activity, friendships, laughter, having a purpose in life, exercise and sunlight exposure have a positive effect on our immune system, she says. Good nutrition is also very important, and people’s diets tend to deteriorate when they eat alone, as they eat quicker and are less likely to put effort into making meals.
She is also passionate about the advisability of people of all ages in Ireland, but particularly older people, to be taking a daily supplement with 800iu of vitamin D, as research shows this will help to prevent colds, flu and chest infections. It will reduce severity of infection if you get Covid-19, she argues, as vitamin D helps to block Ace2 pathways, which she likens to “door handles” that open to allow the virus into the body’s organs.
Try to have at least one meal a week with the family – but socially distanced. It's not impossible
All the recommendations about restricted movements, to her mind, are counterintuitive. “I recommend to my patients and anybody who asks, you’re an independent person, you make your own calls, you decide and if it is necessary for you to get out and walk, do it. We know about gloves, we know about hand-washing, masks – wear them.”
It is more difficult when it comes to meeting people other people, she acknowledges, “but you can meet them safely”. She is more confident “that older people and grandparents are complying with recommendations that we know work” than she would be about younger adults.
“All people who are making policy need to reflect on these truths and leave it up to the individual to risk-manage their own risks and the risk-benefits of everything we are recommending.”
Kenny’s parting advice to grandparents is: “Try to have at least one meal a week with the family – but socially distanced. It’s not impossible. Social isolation and loneliness in my opinion are much higher risk, if you risk-manage Covid properly.”
SeniorLine (1800 80 45 91), a national confidential listening service for older people that operates every day of the year from 10am to 10pm, gives "a whole insight into those little stories that don't necessarily get told", says Anne Dempsey, communications manager of Third Age, where volunteers run the phone service.
The fact that at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis the number of calls went up 200 per cent, and are still running at double the norm, tells its own story. “Our traditional callers – somebody perhaps on their own, widowed or single, living in a remote place, who calls us for conversation, company and contact – were joined by a new cohort of caller: somebody who wouldn’t have defined themselves by their age in the past at all but suddenly found themselves told to stay at home.”
Many of these were people who would have had more social contacts, family connections and grandchildren, she explains, “and they were deprived of all their norms and normal support. At the beginning they did less well than our traditional caller, as they had to ‘pivot’ and find their new way.”
She identifies two predominant types among this group of new callers. The first is, typically, a woman living on her own outside Dublin, who is very close to her adult children and grandchildren but they don’t live nearly. She doesn’t drive and would have been used to travelling on public transport but is now very reluctant to do that. That makes her dependent on them coming to her, but “while they are really caring adult children and grandchildren, they can’t suddenly get into the car and drive all of Saturday. That is difficult – there is a lot of loss and pain there.
“A lot of these people wouldn’t be Zoomers, so the quality and the quantity of the contact has been greatly reduced for a number of callers.”
Another common situation, she says, is callers whose marriages haven’t been great and the grandchildren coming and going have been hugely important in compensating for that.
Grandchildren going into grandparents' houses are the ones who bring in the new ideas, says Deborah Costello, fundraising and communications manager with Friends of the Elderly. "They keep them young with stories about school and new technology."
These visits give them an opportunity to reminisce with grandchildren, who learn so much from grandparents too, she points out.
Separation of the generations “has taken away those human stories”, she says. Now, with the numbers of coronavirus cases rising again and winter approaching, there is increased fear and an added fear of loneliness.
Ray Sinnott, estate manager at Mount Congreve Gardens, Co Waterford, has seen how grandparents, his own parents included, have missed out on time with grandchildren and may have become more fearful about going out. He was delighted to support a plan that the gardens mark next week's National Grandparents' Day by welcoming in free grandparents visiting with their grandchildren this Saturday, October 3rd. (Booking essential, at mountcongreve.com.)
“It’s an excuse to get together,” he says. “My daughter did not get to see her grandparents for a number of weeks, even though they live only 20 minutes away.” His father turned 90 in May and not only were they unable to throw the big party they had been talking about for years, he couldn’t even have his grandchildren around him.
He had changed so much. He had grown out of babyhood; he was a little boy, full of chat and questions
“They were out in the back garden, waving in at him – it’s just sad.” He acknowledges that other families have far worse stories and he is glad that his 81-year-old mother, at least, has been able to re-establish a close relationship with his nine-year-old daughter Nina.
“They have nothing in common but they just get on great, yapping away to each other,” he remarks. But Sinnott can see the effect the pandemic has had on his father. “He’s nervous, he doesn’t want to go out and he’s only walking in the back garden; he’s afraid of meeting people. That’s the same up and down the country.”
Gretta Sutton (75) and her husband Don (77) found it heartbreaking not to see their only grandson, Jack, from the beginning of February until just before his second birthday in July. They had minded him two days a week when he lived near their home in Malahide, Co Dublin, before their son and his wife moved to Athlone, Co Westmeath last October. But they still saw him regularly after that, before coronavirus struck.
“He had changed so much,” she says of Jack after being reunited. “He had grown out of babyhood; he was a little boy, full of chat and questions, full of beans, you couldn’t keep up with him.”
An active couple, Gretta and Don found the first lockdown tough enough, she says. But “we made the best of it, we’re positive people, we did our exercises”. They have another son, living in Malahide, who has a stepdaughter, Charlotte (24) whom they “love dearly” as their step-granddaughter. It was she who left a cake with lighted candles on their doorstep to mark Gretta’s birthday in April.
The first few days of lockdown, Gretta went around in her dressing gown for a good part of the day before deciding she couldn’t keep doing that. “I got up every morning at the same time, got dressed and made up – I put on something new every day. There was one day my husband said to me, ‘You had that on you yesterday, are you all right?’”
She was fearful at first to go out after lockdown “but, like everything, it is never as bad as you anticipate”. Yet, she still needs to psyche herself up before every outing.
“I would not go into town and I do miss that as I love shopping.”
While Don is delighted to be back playing golf a couple of times a week – “he missed it terribly when the clubs were closed” – he hasn’t wanted to eat out after restaurants reopened, and have since closed again, in Dublin. She misses family meals out.
Age never meant anything to her until the arrival of coronavirus. It wasn’t the “cocooning” recommendation for over 70s that annoyed her, rather “your mortality looms a bit more. A friend rang the other day and said ‘Gretta, do you think we will ever see normality in our lifetime again?’ and I said ‘of course we will . . .’” but without, perhaps, 100 per cent conviction.
Gretta says she had never thought like that before, always preferring to concentrate on getting on with the day and enjoying life.
“Hopefully,” she adds, “I will get back to that frame of mind.”
Grandparents on grandchildren: ‘You’d do anything for that child’
Grandmother Gretta Sutton (75) will never forget the moment she first held her only grandson, Jack, in the Coombe hospital just over two years ago.
“I was terrified, of course, he was so tiny.” Up to then, she thought she could “take it or leave it” when it came to being a grandparent.
But a close friend had kept saying, “You have no idea what it’s going to be like when the baby arrives.” Now she knows and she’s besotted. “I think life passes by when you’re a mother,” she says, recalling how she just took a few months off from teaching for the births of her two sons.
“Looking at Jack, we have more time now. I would watch every single movement – you have time to enjoy every step of his development. Having just one, we are very focused on him, of course,” she says of herself and her husband Don (77). “It’s a very special bond with your grandchild; you have to be there to realise what it is,” she adds. “You’d do anything for that child.”
A love that is completely different to any other, is how grandmother Cherry Keane (76) describes her feelings for granddaughters Grace (seven) and Sarah-Jane (four). In retirement, “you have more time on your hands, you can really watch the child and be so excited by how nature is. How the child develops in every way, physically and mentally, and watch them going from being dependent to more independent. I just think it’s amazing.
“I would say that I am quite obsessed with my grandchildren,” she adds. “I live a very independent life but I absolutely adore everything about them.”