Róisín Ingle: Older people deserve a standing ovation for making it through the pandemic

There is a silence around the impact of cocooning on the older generation

Almost 40 per cent of participants in a recent study reported that their mental health had deteriorated since they started cocooning. Photograph: iStock

Almost 40 per cent of participants in a recent study reported that their mental health had deteriorated since they started cocooning. Photograph: iStock

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I was a bit giddy as I sat with my two sisters in the front row at the Hinterland Festival of Literature & Arts in Kells, Co Meath last weekend. I was giddy for a few reasons.

One sister, an actuary not used to attending festivals of literature and arts, had unintentionally made me laugh by asking with genuine incredulity “do people really pay to hear people they don’t know talk at these things?”

I was also giddy from the novelty of being in a room with other humans, even fully masked ones, for the purposes of entertainment. Most of all I was giddy with pride and anticipation. Two of my favourite people were on the stage: best-selling author Marian Keyes and debut memoirist Ann Ingle – my mother.

There is a restorative light shining on my 82-year-old mother at the moment. She spent the third lockdown, the worst of all the lockdowns, writing a book of memoir essays called Openhearted. Writing the book gave her something to get up for, when after months of cocooning she had lost a large part of her considerable mojo. I’ve no shame, not one scrap of it, about telling you how wonderful her book is and how you absolutely must buy it when it lands in all the best shops later this month.

I was giddy but I was also nervous for my mother as we waited for the event to begin. She had to be helped up and down the steps at the side of the stage because of her dodgy eyes (macular degeneration), her dodgy knee (age-related arthritis) and her dodgy wrist (broken after a recent fall).

The recent fall is worth recounting. She fell while walking across the road on her way to the doctor to get an injection in the dodgy knee. She fell, despite the recent online purchase of a new walking stick decorated in a jolly flower pattern. She fell and she was not able to get up again, so she lay clutching her jolly walking stick in the middle of the road, not for one moment doubting somebody would come along and help.

After a few minutes two men in a passing car came along and helped. They lifted her off the ground and into their car and brought her to the doctor. (If you are reading this, two men in a car, thank you very much.)

I was nervous for my mother but I need not have been. She spoke rivetingly to Keyes about life, love, mental illness, suicide and sex – her daughters in the front row covered their ears for that part. She also spoke passionately about the importance of listening to older people.

My mother had met a man earlier that morning who decided, while his own mother cocooned, to go for a socially-distanced walk with her every day. He said he learned more about his mother during those strolls than he had in all the decades he had known her.

After an hour of talking, my mother was given a standing ovation. “Do you see why people pay for these gigs now?” I asked my sister. “Yes, I do,” the actuary smiled.

There is a devastating silence around the grief from these losses, all those people mourned without the familiar rituals and gatherings that usually mark a death in this country

At the beginning of this year a study was published by researchers from Trinity College Dublin and St James’s Hospital about the effects of cocooning on older people through the pandemic. The findings were stark. Almost 40 per cent of participants reported that their mental health had deteriorated since they began cocooning. More than 57 per cent reported loneliness at least some of the time with one in eight reporting that they were lonely “very often”.

Not surprisingly, participants were almost twice as likely to report loneliness if they lived alone. More than 40 per cent said there’d been a decline in their physical health during the pandemic.

When my mother, who fortunately does not live alone, got her book deal, it became a lifeline, giving a distracting purpose to those grim lockdown days and long lockdown nights. But many older people had nothing to stave off the effects of pandemic-imposed isolation.

And, of course, many older people never came out the other side. The majority of those who have died during Covid-19 were over 65. There is a devastating silence around the grief from these losses, all those people mourned without the familiar rituals and gatherings that usually mark a death in this country.

There is also a silence around the secondary impact of Covid-19 on the many thousands of older people who survived the pandemic. “There needs to be provision for appropriate rehabilitation services for this cohort,” concluded geriatrician Dr Robert Briggs, the author of that study on cocooning.

I am grateful that because she wrote a book, a rehabilitative light is shining on my 82-year-old mother. And I’m happy that tonight, in a south Co Dublin theatre, a spotlight will shine on 84-year-old performer Rosaleen Linehan, as she tells audiences the story of her incredible life and times in a show called Backwards Up a Rainbow.

I’ve no doubt Linehan will receive several well-deserved standing ovations over the course of the show. I’m also sure both she and Ann Ingle would agree that older people across Ireland deserve a standing ovation for making it through the pandemic.

Let’s shine a rehabilitative light on all of them. Listening would be a good start.

Openhearted by Ann Ingle, published by Penguin Sandycove, is out on September 23rd

Backwards Up a Rainbow, produced by Lovano and Landmark Theatre, is at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, from Wednesday, September 15th, to Sunday, September 26th. It will be livestreamed on September 24th, 25th and 26th