Coronavirus: London-Irish groups play a vital role

Elderly Irish face new challenges amid the Covid-19 crisis

Rebecca Hoare (74)  in Bayswater, London, takes delivery of a new fridge from Matt Wilcock, of Quinn London,  which the Irish Elderly Advice Network organised. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Rebecca Hoare (74) in Bayswater, London, takes delivery of a new fridge from Matt Wilcock, of Quinn London, which the Irish Elderly Advice Network organised. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

 

Recently, Rebecca Hoare’s fridge broke. Usually, such a problem would be an annoyance, but no more than that for the 74-year-old Irishwoman living alone in central London. In a Covid-19 world, however, it is a different matter.

Told like other over-70s in Britain to stay indoors, Hoare, originally from Waterford and living in London for 55 years, has received food deliveries a few times a week since the crisis broke. Life without a fridge was unsustainable.

Fortunately, help was at hand. Last Wednesday, she received a call from the Irish Elderly Advice Network (IEAN), which has been ringing through a list of nearly 3,000 phone numbers of the elderly Irish living in London.

She explained her predicament. Within days, the IEAN, led by Nora Mulready and with 35 volunteers, had organised contractors from Quinn London to deliver a new fridge, and remove the broken one.

Before the pandemic, Hoare led an active social life – gathering with cousins from across London every month or so; singing every Sunday in the Coopers Arms in Kilburn; or spending time in the London Irish Centre in Camden.

There are thousands like her in London. Although not all of them can be contacted, the IEAN, the London Irish Centre, the Aisling Project, and other such organisations have been trying to find those they can.

So far, the IEAN has organised food deliveries for elderly Irish across nearly every London borough, says Mulready: “We are dealing with everything on a case-by-case basis,” she tells The Irish Times.

Sometimes, the requests are specific. Last week, one woman, unable now to cook for herself, asked if she could be given a cooked meal. Within minutes, a volunteer was found, who now offers a home-delivered roast once a week.

Making phone calls to so many is time-consuming, but crucial, Mulready says. In addition, the organisation runs a seven-day-a-week helpline, which allows the elderly to take the initiative.

For now, food deliveries are “the urgent priority”, she says. While doing them, volunteers try to make sure those they visit are signed up for government-backed programmes, and are in touch with their local councils.

The majority of the IEAN’s volunteers are themselves older Irish. Isolation has been a curse that has long troubled many elderly Irish in London. Often, they are on their own, with no family – at least nearby.

Since Covid-19, the situation has become more difficult. The London Irish Centre in Camden, the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and other Irish community groups have had to close their doors for public gatherings.

In a bid to combat the lack of connection, the IEAN has begun an effort to get its elderly Irish community online. They could “become completely separate” from the outside world, if they do not engage, Mulready warns.

Information deficit

The elderly are suffering from “huge information deficit” if they are not online. They are unable to check the detail of government advice at a speed with which they are comfortable, or are restricted in the ways they can keep in touch with friends.

Plans to bulk-buy iPads, which are easier for the elderly to use than mobile phones, are afoot – set up with email addresses and Facebook accounts, along with the support staff needed to guide a non-digital generation.

The project starts with the 30-strong Irish Pensioners’ Choir. If it works, it will be rolled out more widely, so sponsors will be needed. Recently, it raised £18,000 (€20,545) for its Covid-19 work, along with £25,000 from the Irish Government.

That money has paid for a 36-page newsletter for 6,000 elderly Irish across London. And it has allowed the IEAN, which before Covid-19 had just four staff, to hire a full-time staff member to co-ordinate its volunteers.

The IEAN is just one of many support networks across London and the UK helping elderly Irish, or those in difficulties. The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith is offering telephone support to its patrons.

Meanwhile, the Aisling Project, which deals often with those struggling with addictions, has had to scale back face-to-face meetings, but it is keeping links open by telephone.

Often, it rings people several times a day: “Keeping contact with these vulnerable men and women is vital to their wellbeing where reassurance and emergency intervention can save lives,” says a spokesperson.

Sometimes, however, entertainment, rather than help, is needed. The Irish Embassy’s From Isolation, Inspiration project nightly shares music, songs, or a poetry reading from a different Irish person from across the UK over social media.

Recently, the chairman of the Irish Pensioners’ Choir, Tom Wheeler, was live-streamed on Facebook singing from his front garden. Such efforts are needed now, he says: “Everybody likes a bit of music, it cheers you up.”