Time to make new friends and learn from the pandemic

Now that the worst of the pandemic is hopefully over, we can return to some of the key issues that arose during the horrific period of the last 21 months or so, and reflect on what we might change or do differently as we tentatively step back into the public arena again and try to return to living our lives to the best of our ability in our new-found freedom.

  When the history books are written, this period from March 2020 to January 2022 will go down as an absolute time of horror for our nation, and indeed for our world. I think most people will probably now agree with me that it was the youngest and oldest members of our society who were worst hit by the lethal Covid-19 virus. In that shocking death toll of over 5,000 people (in Ireland), we know that those who had significant underlying medical conditions, were living in nursing homes or at home alone, were particularly vulnerable in the first year of the pandemic. Meanwhile, it is fair to say that our teenagers and young children had not only their education, but their social lives too, stolen from them for long periods.

  In the last few days it has now been suggested that an expert committee will come together to examine where mistakes were made. In the UK we know already there is going to be a sworn inquiry held, and there is no doubt that serious lessons need to be learned about how we all responded to the threat from something we had never heard about before.

  On the positive side of the coin, there are some aspects of our lives that have changed for the better since March 2020. I, for one, hope they will remain features of our everyday activities. For starters, the focus on outdoor recreation has been a huge bonus. Nor far from where I live in Ballyleague, every day of the week thousands of people come out for a healthy walk on Sliabh Bawn, the promenade along the Shannon in our village, or along the nearby cutaway bogs. This has been a huge success in these pandemic times – not just for recreation and the health of the people, but for local businesses too. Whether it’s just a bottle of water or a newspaper that is bought by people coming or going on these daily excursions, the reality is that it’s a benefit that wasn’t previously there for small communities. It is a very promising new trend.

  I have written previously in this column about the brilliant community response to the pandemic and the way our voluntary groups, GAA clubs and others have stepped up to the plate during the worst days of the virus, collecting the shopping and daily messages for those who were cocooning or living alone. I have also discussed at great length the fact that many, many people who were vulnerable had to be left alone for long periods and kept away from the risk of infection.

  Included in this group of those worst affected were people with disabilities and many others who are affected by dementia and alzheimers who faced long periods of isolation where they simply had no company at all in their homes.

  “We were more or less trapped at home” one elderly man told me recently. Meanwhile, the story of the lady who lived alone and started writing to herself once a week – so that the postman might call for a chat when delivering the letter a few days later – is already well known in these parts.

  When I wrote about that incident firstly here in the Roscommon People, I received the following beautiful letter from a lady called Ann Hughes – and the suggestion from this delightful correspondence has brought me to another issue of huge importance.

‘Dear Ciaran, I saw you were writing about people writing to themselves to receive post back and perhaps even a visit from the postman during the pandemic.

  ‘I always loved to receive and write letters and I just wondered if you could put me in contact with any person who would like to receive such a letter.

  ‘I am 79 years of age. I am lucky. I have a husband, three grown-up daughters, six grandchildren, and another due later in the year. I am busy with my family and cannot commit to anything outside the home because I am ‘on call’ to them, but to write to someone would be a pleasure for me to do. Something to think about…Ann’

My first reaction when this correspondence came through the letter box in Ballyleague was to say to my ‘other half’ that my faith in humanity had been restored. At a time when women and men of this very age were at home petrified – and watching out for their own safety –  here was a lady prepared to look beyond her own kitchen door and watch out for others who were less well off in terms of supports. My second thought was how this type of initiative could indeed be developed into a worthwhile form of ‘befriending’ for people who live alone. I thought for a while about how this kind gesture might be built into a regular feature in our rural communities – and thus help develop something really positive going forward from this horrid time.

  Within a short period of time, that word ‘befriending’ was to reappear again in my life when I got a lovely phone call from a man called Tom McCann, who works as a dementia nurse specialist with the Western Alzheimers Association. Tom told me that he and his colleagues had commenced their very own ‘Befriending Service’ in counties Roscommon, Galway and Mayo in 2019. The aim of the service was to support people living with dementia. This was achieved via the provision of companionship through a weekly volunteer visit to the home of somebody with dementia.

  The service was designed to lessen the impact that social isolation or loneliness has on both physical and mental health, improve the quality of life and promote independence of the person living with dementia, and, crucially, it also provides an opportunity for the primary carer in some of these homes to have a well-earned break.

  All the befrienders in the service are volunteers who receive no payment. They are provided with training and are Garda-vetted. To make it all work well, befrienders are matched with people who have similar interests such as card playing, farming, walking or cycling. When you think about it, it’s a really smart idea and one we should all support.

  Currently there are approximately 50 volunteer befrienders operating in the three counties. The aim is to increase this number over the coming 12 months – especially here in County Roscommon. The feedback from service recipients is extraordinary, with many outlining how they look forward to the weekly visit of the befriender above everything else in the week. Likewise, many befrienders express their belief that they get as much if not more intrinsic satisfaction from their own role as that enjoyed by the recipient.

  It really is an initiative that is deserving of our support. I wrote a column last year on the great work also being done by the Roscommon Dementia Alliance Group in this general area. If you have a few hours to spare once a week, and would be interested in obtaining more information about the role of a befriender, please contact Tom McCann, Dementia Nurse Specialist, Western Alzheimers on 087 1930233 (or email tommccann@westernalzheimers.ie). Or you can write to the boss – Pat Holmes, CEO, Western Alzheimers, Ballindine, Claremorris, Co. Mayo F12 PY99 www.westernalzheimers.ie

  At the end of the day it is to be hoped that progressive initiatives such as this that were born in the desperate days of the pandemic will actually give us a positive legacy from this period in our history – and stay with us for years to come.