Reaching out: Volunteers step in to support older people during coronavirus crisis

We may feel powerless against the pandemic, but while looking after ourselves is important, there are still things we can do to help others, says Rowena Walsh.

Mary Conway has been volunteering for 40 years.
Mary Conway has been volunteering for 40 years.

Mary Conway has been volunteering for 40 years, and even the outbreak of Covid-19 isn’t stopping the 70-year-old from continuing to help others in need.

She is a member of Age Friendly Skerries and is working to coordinate those in the north county Co Dublin town who have offered to collect shopping and prescriptions for its older residents who are unable to leave their homes due to fears about contracting the virus.

Mary, who is originally from Rossmore in Co Cork, says that she has received many positive calls in relation to the initiative. “People are saying that it is reassuring that to know that somebody cares,” she says.

I think people have stocked up on food and [so] it won’t take off for a while. The important thing is that we’re there if they need us. We’ll get shopping.

She has mobility issues and lives alone, so plans to use the facility herself in the next couple of days, saying: “When I run out of milk and bread, I’m not going down the town in a taxi and into a shop.”

[social=twitter]https://twitter.com/AgeAction/status/1240027571179229184[social]

Sr Margaret Kiely, a volunteer with Age Action Ireland (www.ageaction.ie), agrees. “It’s up to us to obey the guidelines but to be mindful then of not cutting anyone off,” she says.

Be mindful of those living alone, give them a call and connect with them.

She says that while there is a certain amount of anxiety among people about Covid-19, “it isn’t over the top”.

This is echoed by Mary, who says many people are being very practical, but there is guilt among grandparents who can’t continue to look after their grandchildren.

Like so many people, Mary and Margaret’s daily routines have dramatically changed. Mary says last week her friend, who thought that she was heeding government advice, still wanted to go out for lunch, and while she felt bad about staying at home, “I got the courage to say: ‘No, we’re not going out’, because it has to be done. I think you have to disapprove of people when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to.”

Margaret, an award-winning IT tutor, says that some of her pupils voluntarily decided to cancel their classes. She is a keen bridge player, but says that now “we can’t be handling cards”. Her regular visits to a nursing home have had to stop too. “The only thing I can turn to now is my art or my sewing machine. It’s strange times we’re living in.”

Reaching out:  Volunteers step in to support older people during coronavirus crisis

Celine Clark, head of advocacy and communications with Age Action Ireland, says that limiting social contact doesn’t mean going into isolation or going into hibernation. “We’re still encouraged to go for a walk and stay in contact with people, but just observing those guidelines aboutsanitisation, staying one metre two metres apart, and making sure surfaces are clean. We need to mitigate the risk of infection but also mitigate the risk of people becoming isolated.”

Just under 40% of persons living alone were 65 and over, according to Census 2016 (exa.mn/Census2016), and over half of all people with disabilities are living alone and aged 65 and over.

Those people who are living alone may already have an informal family caregiver and they should have a conversation about who will be able to support them, should their family caregiver fall ill, says Celine.

“If anyone is on medication regularly, somebody else should know about it,” she says. “So make a list of your medication and stick it somewhere on your home where it’s visible, by the phone or the kettle, in case you need to make a phone call to your pharmacist or a neighbour or a friend to bring you stuff. You just have it listed and ready.

“It’s the same for all of us — we need to be Covid-19 ready. Be informed, make a plan, and stay connected.”

Older people need to understand the risks posed by Covid-19, says Celine, adding that a lot of older people may not identify themselves as old.

While those aged over 65 are not more at risk of infection, she says they’re more at risk of severe impact, according to the official information from the Department of Health and HSE.

For Sr Margaret, her faith is a great consolation and she believes “in the older age group, people tend to have a contact with God, they’re spiritual people, they trust in God and they pray.”

Reaching out:  Volunteers step in to support older people during coronavirus crisis

She says the older generation of people are hardy, resilient, and composed: “We’ve seen all of life.”

Celine says it’s crucial younger people, who may not see themselves at risk, follow the guidelines to protect themselves so that they are protecting other people. “That’s the most important thing that I think anyone can do. And the next level down, stay informed and stay connected, not to leave anyone isolated or in need of something.”

Mary is worried about boredom and isolation. “I can’t get on a bus, I can’t get into a train, I can’t go to the shops, I can’t go for a coffee,” she says. “The only thing that’s keeping me going is that I’m doing it [social distancing] to keep people alive. That has to be enough.”

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