Fergus Finlay: I found resilience and character — without leaving my home

Fergus Finlay's daughter Mandy is leading her father on a daily walking regime during the lockdown.

Keeping their social distance at the Lough, Cork, were Tony Bennett, Derek Geaney, and Michael O’Mahony.   Picture: Dan Linehan
Keeping their social distance at the Lough, Cork, were Tony Bennett, Derek Geaney, and Michael O’Mahony. Picture: Dan Linehan

So we’re not quite cocooned. But more or less. 

Frieda, Mandy and me. Mandy and I are allowed to go out for brief exercise to our local park (less than 200 yards away), but Frieda — the fittest of us by far — is confined to the house and our tiny garden. More of all that in a moment.

But first I need to talk about leadership. I am, as the world knows, a natural leader of men. The sort of person who will thrive in adversity, who will innovate and inspire and bring his troops through any crisis.

Mandy, on the other hand, is nothing of the kind. I have written about Mandy before here, and the way in which her Down Syndrome has shaped her life, and ours to a considerable extent. Generally speaking, Mandy is, how shall I put it, easy going. 

She would usually be quite happy to spend all day sitting on the couch, eating whatever comes her way, and avoiding any kind of strenuous exercise as if it were, well, a pandemic.

While weight is an issue for a lot of people with Down syndrome, Mandy hates any discussion about weight — gets angry if the subject is brought up. (As someone who has always struggled with my own weight, I recognise defensiveness when I see it.)

So what does Mandy in a cocoon look like? You might well expect that she’d take to it like a duck to water. Like an opportunity to do as little as possible for as long as possible.

Except you’d be spectacularly wrong. 

A few months ago, Mandy was encouraged by her older sister Emma to join an organisation called Slimming World. 

And that’s where Mandy discovered, not so much the range of esoteric diets and approaches they foster, but the whole idea of competing around weight loss. Of standing with your peers for a weekly weigh-in. Of everyone cheering when you lose a kilo, or sympathising if the opposite happens.

And it was really beginning to work before the coronavirus knocked all that down. 

For the first time in her life, Mandy was beginning to address, in her own way, an issue that had affected her fitness and wellbeing and general health for years. And she was doing it where she lived, among her friends and colleagues.

One of the first things that happened when the pandemic started, of course, was that we all agreed (Mandy reluctantly) it would be best, as long as Frieda and I were well, for Mandy to come home. But it became clear quickly that coming home would be a pretty limiting existence. 

Long idle hours on the couch looked like the medium-term future.

A little over two weeks ago, Mandy and Frieda had been in contact with someone who had himself been in contact with a colleague who had tested positive.

So for that period they had been isolating from me — which meant, among other things, they had been sharing one of our bedrooms and I had been using the other one.

On one of the first mornings of this enforced isolation, I was fast asleep (long after I should have been up) when the bedroom door opened and Mandy squirted a half pint of water all over me. “Get up,” she said. “Time to go to the park!”

And half an hour later, there I was, still bleary-eyed, tottering round the circuit of our local park in one direction while Mandy strode out in the other. And that’s been the pattern ever since.

Mandy insists on using the park to get in at least 10,000 steps every day — that usually requires two
visits, one morning, one afternoon — and likes nothing better than to beat her poor old dad across the finish line each time.

I was not expecting this. I’ve struggled to come to terms with this new reality, Mandy has thrived on it, and has become a leader in her own way.

And many of her friends have risen to the occasion too. I’ve also written here about Lakers, the club in Bray for people with an intellectual disability. 

The club has been through its share of ups and downs in recent years, but the thing that kept it going was the strong sense of togetherness that was at the core of its ethos.

But when classes aren’t possible and the building has to be shut down, how do you keep that togetherness going? With Zoom, and WhatsApp, and all the other forms of social media that as so useful now. 

I didn’t realise how quickly our members would be able to download and use all these things, or how creative our instructors could be in using them.

But that’s just goes to show that having an intellectual disability is tough. It’s being an old fogie that is the incurable condition.

None of this is to suggest that managing the coronavirus is easy. I know families who live in terrible fear of contracting the virus, and at the same time are in desperate straits as a result of the lockdown.

I know some parents are really struggling to cope — especially if they feel locked in with adult children with behavioural issues.

These can be terrible situations, where mental health is under huge strain, and even some involving physical danger.

And for many, it will get worse before it gets better. None of us finds it possible to predict where all this will lead, even as we’re all doing our best to protect each other. 

We all live in the hope that we’ll come out the other end, and perhaps above all that we’ll see our loved ones safely through.

But I guess right now I’m feeling luckier than most. There are three people in our house, and two of them, it turns out, are real leaders. 

Mandy and Frieda are collaborating on things like meal management, with a view to ensuring that lockdown doesn’t mean that standards slip. 

Suddenly, this woman with Down syndrome has become proactive about tidiness and organisation and fitness. And she has also decided that her father needs to buck up and look after himself.

I don't know how long this is going to last. I know from my work with the HSE how difficult it is to just keep abreast of the country’s needs.

The organisation is doing a brilliant job, but the daily challenges of supply and preparation are really daunting. 

We seem to be utterly united as a country in the battle against the virus right now, and that unity must hold.

But the way things are going, and as long as all our luck lasts, there’s a fighting chance we’ll come out of this stronger than we went into it, and better able to face the major tasks associated with rebuilding the economy — again.

If that turns out to be the case, I’d love to be able to claim the credit, at least as far as my own family is concerned. 

But it transpires that they are the ones with resilience and character, all my daughters and my missus. 

They won’t owe me anything if we all get through this. I’ll owe them.

As long as all our luck lasts, there’s a fighting chance we’ll come out of this stronger than we went into it

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department;
  • GPs Out of Hours services are not in a position to order testing for patients with normal cold and flu-like symptoms. HSELive is an information line and similarly not in a position to order testing for members of the public. The public is asked to reserve 112/999 for medical emergencies at all times.
  • ALONE has launched a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland. The support line will be open seven days a week, 8am-8pm, by calling 0818 222 024

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