Older people on isolation: ‘I have plenty of food but not much appetite’

‘It might be four months. I’m taking it one day at a time. I can’t think further than that’

Rosemary Smith drinking wine in her front garden having a socially distanced chat with her neighbour Deborah Harpur. Photograph: Tom Honan

Rosemary Smith drinking wine in her front garden having a socially distanced chat with her neighbour Deborah Harpur. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

EVELYN (74) AND TERRY WAINWRIGHT (84)

Togher, Co Cork

“They say it might be four months, but I’m taking it one day at a time, I can’t think further than that,” says Evelyn Wainwright (74), who lives in Togher, Co Cork with her husband, Terry (84).

The couple are both wheelchair users. For older people, especially those with underlying medical conditions, it has been a challenging two weeks as they’ve come to terms with their new living circumstances confined indoors and with the risks associated with contracting Covid-19.

This weekend, as further restrictions are introduced, life for people aged 65 and over – who according to the 2016 census make up 19 per cent of the population, or almost 640,000 people – will become even more difficult. We spoke to a cross-section of older people around the country, some of whom live alone, to find out how they are coping.

Evelyn, a wheelchair user with polio, begins each day with Mass. She watches a daily service from Canada on YouTube. One of the Masses this week was based on the hymn Be Not Afraid. “It gave me a big lift,” she says.

Terry uses a wheelchair since having had a stroke five years ago. His speech is limited. “He is a very easy-going man, God bless him and spare him,” says Evelyn.

A carer comes each day to look after Terry. “I’ve a big concern about personal care coming in to my home,” she says. “I am terrified. She always wears gloves, but no mask, and she is face to face with him.” Terry has diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). He is on the anti-stroke medication warfarin and also needs iron injections.

As long as my friend can do the shopping for me and help with the bins, I think I will be okay, but if anything were to happen to her ...

Has she thought how she will manage a prolonged period where older people are “cocooned” as mentioned by Leo Varadkar in his St Patrick’s Day address to the nation? She says she is already cocooning and does not leave the house, even though she can drive.

“I can’t think beyond a day. If I was to think about four months I would go crazy, right now. As long as my friend can do the shopping for me and help with the bins, I think I will be okay, but if anything were to happen to her ... ”

Like many older people Evelyn is on the phone “half the day” to friends and relations. Her two daughters cannot see her because they have been away in other countries and are self-isolating.

“I’m never off WhatsApp, with all the jokes coming in.” She plays solitaire on the computer, watches cat training videos and is “glued” to Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen.

She worries about Terry. “I have a lot to fill my days but he doesn’t. I worry about him being depressed or sad in himself.”

“I always used to say to Terry: one day at a time. I told him he could put that on my headstone. It’s never been more true than now.”

ROSEMARY SMITH (82)

Co Dublin

The former racing driver, who lives alone in Dundrum, Dublin, has just had her groceries delivered. “Look at all that lovely wine,” she says seemingly undaunted by the restrictions or by the fact that at 82 and with six heart stents she is in the “high risk” category should she contract coronavirus. Smith reckons that years of “being locked up in cars doing long-distance rallies” was good training for life under lockdown.

“I don’t mind it at all,” she says. “I like being on my own. There’s always something to do ... I know it’s very odd times and I really feel dreadfully sorry for people who need people around them and they don’t have them.”

She lives in an area where there is a green space in front of the houses. A group of neighbours decided in the earlier phase that at 6.30pm each evening they’d go out into their small front gardens. “We sit on stools and we have a bottle of wine or whatever you are drinking on the wall. We have a drink from 6.30pm to 7.30pm. We make sure to keep two metres away. This is a great opportunity to talk to each other, and I hope we keep it up after this is all over.”

Rosemary Smith sitting drinking wine in her front garden having a socially distant chat with her neighbour Deborah Harpur. Photograph: Tom Honan
Rosemary Smith and her neighbour Deborah Harpur. Photograph: Tom Honan
I wish the younger people would realise that they can get this virus and they can also carry it. I don’t think it has come home to them yet

As with most of the older people I speak to, Rosemary’s daily routine is important. “I get up in the morning, not early I can tell you, and there is so much to do. My house is cleaner than it’s been in 10 years. I’ve mowed the grass and planted flowers. I get the ironing done. I don’t mind it.

“I just hope it doesn’t take too many people. And I wish the younger people would realise that they can get this virus and they can also carry it. I don’t think it has come home to them yet.”

Is she worried about the “cocooning” phase, when she won’t be allowed to go out? “At the moment I go for a walk once a day ... with my face mask and my gloves.”

But if the Government says older people must stay home at all times, “I’ll do that ... That will be it, end of story. I’ll get the newspapers delivered and read them cover to cover.”

EAMONN CALLAGHAN (77)

Ballinode, Co Monaghan

Many older people are discovering new technologies to help them cope during the pandemic. When I ring Eamonn Callaghan, the retired local government official is on Zoom, having a committee meeting of his local U3A (University of the Third Age) group, a movement of retired people.

“We were discussing our Poems and Pints event we used to run quite often in the local pub, Maggie’s Bar,” he says. It won’t be happening for a while now.

Eamonn lives with his wife, Agnes, and his son, who is in his 20s. He says his son is more anxious than they are about the situation. “We’ve been getting on well enough, and trying not to be silly,” he says. “If we are silly, my son puts us straight. He is the monitor.”

Here in the country we go out and walk, and if we meet people, we keep our distance

What does “silly” look like now? “Well, I was talking about going in to town [they live 6km from Monaghan town] to get my medication.” His son will get it instead.

He thinks the cocooning of older people will not be enforced as much in rural areas. “That cocooning is something more with city living, big town living ... Here in the country we go out and walk, and if we meet people, we keep our distance.”

MARY FLEMING (80)

Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin

The radio is on in the background when I call Mary Fleming, who lives on her own. “Sorry about that,” she says, “I was just listening to Joe giving advice.” She listens to Joe Duffy most days, keeping up to date with the latest twists and turns of the pandemic.

Mary, a mother of four, describes herself as “self-sufficient – I enjoy my own company” but even so it took her a while to adapt to this new way of life. “It started off with disbelief, it took a while before the real seriousness of it landed with me. I carried on as normal but then I realised you can’t do that,” she says.

Establishing a set routine has been important but it’s a significant change from her usual day-to-day life. She used to get up, go to Mass, do the shopping and have breakfast.

“The Mass was gone for a start ... I heard from my daughter about someone who had got the virus at Mass, so that was out,” she says. She watches it on the television now. “A different experience.”

Her day now begins with a walk in the morning and a visit to the shops if she needs anything. The rest of the time she is reading, doing crosswords and ringing people on the phone.

“There are a lot of people my own age who are on their own, so I ring them or they ring me. The phone hasn’t stopped really.” The phone rings while we are talking – another friend checking in.

She says her family have been “very good”. They are dropping meals to the door but not coming near. “Most of them have been away in recent times, so they might be compromised.” Meals are at the usual time, and she watches the news, “but you can only take so much of that”.

I am hoping that nature will benefit from all this human inactivity. It’s something to hold on to

Her eldest daughter lives nearby but is staying away because she has a friend with the virus. Another daughter is in the throes of cancer treatment, so it’s crucial they stay apart. “They are on the phone all the time, and if I need anything they’ll be there. I consider myself lucky because they are all in Ireland.”

She misses her writing group and singing in her choir. Her daily walk is important and she’d miss that if the cocooning of older people were to be introduced.

“I was out for a walk in the field behind my house the other day and you could hear the church bells distinctly. In normal times you can’t hear them because there is too much traffic. So that was good. That and the clear blue sky and not a sign of a vapour trail. I am hoping that nature will benefit from all this human inactivity. It’s something to hold on to.”

WILLIAM JENKINS (86)

Ballyfermot, Dublin

“I’m climbing the walls,” says William Jenkins, a retired tailor. “I am here in my little flat and my wife, Agnes, is locked up, and I am not allowed to see her.” Agnes is “locked up” in a “four-star” nursing home, he explains. All visits have been banned because of the pandemic, along with social activities for the residents.

He lives in sheltered housing, in Fr Bidone Court, Ballyfermot, which is run by the Sons of Providence. “There are lots of volunteers organising things for us, people to do your banking and shopping ... I have plenty of food but not much of an appetite.”

He has a tumour on his lung but says he’s not afraid of dying. “I am only worried about dying before Aggie”

Jenkins keeps in touch with his grandsons and is keeping to his flat except for his appointments for radiation a few times a week – “my Chernobyl visits”, he says. He has a tumour on his lung but says he’s not afraid of dying. “I am only worried about dying before Aggie.”

Agnes has dementia but still recognises William sometimes. “I’m worried after this she will never recognise me again.”

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