Comforting voice gives real shelter from storm

Q&A: Anne Dempsey

As Denise Hall looked out her window in West Cork at the recent biblical level storms, she wondered how many people in neighbouring rural communities had even worse plights.

For most of the morning, the sky had been a moody slate grey with low, rain-filled clouds resting heavily on the horizon.

It was obvious that something big — and probably unwelcome — was brewing.

By about mid-morning, the wind had begun to gather force and the trees had started to bend to the ground then fly backwards to an upright position like so many spindly catapults.

Leaves from the seemingly indestructible rhododendron flew past the windows in great swarms and Jack, my canny collie-cross had started to pace restlessly, even trying to get onto my lap, something he never does.

By mid-day, I was seriously considering getting under the table with the two dogs, sure that, like so many animals, Jack was privy to some sort of inside information and knew something I didn’t.

The power flickered on and off and each time I held my breath. But it was obvious that such was the growing ferocity of the wind that before too long and despite the best efforts of the ESB, the power would be off.

Did I have spare batteries for the radio or the torch? No. Did I have a spare gas fill? No. Did I have enough candles? Well, that was hard to say as it rather depended on just how long this was all going to last. By two o’clock it became obvious that this was one of the worst storms in living memory.

Outside the window it looked like one of those Hollywood disaster movies.

As soon as there was some sort of phone coverage, neighbours began to call each other, to compare notes and to check on each other.

Then darkness started to gather and it was time to get all those important jobs done. Candles and fires had to be lit, dinner to be cooked and hot water bottles to be filled.

In the event, it was to be six days before the hard-pressed ESB were able to restore our power, and a dark, cold six days it was too.

I made a careful emergency run to town the next day to stock up on the essentials, praying that an unstable tree didn’t come down on top of me.

I did my best to maintain a positive front but it became increasingly difficult, especially when one night the temperature dropped below zero.

I reminded myself that there were many hundreds of other people who were far worse off than me — people whose homes had been damaged, people who had no water and countless farmers who had to rely on shared generators to milk and water their livestock.

The worst thing that happened to me was that in the flickering candlelight I ate half a dog biscuit before I realised that it wasn’t, in fact, the digestive biscuit I had left there earlier.

Then I started to think about the amount of older people who perhaps lived alone in isolated areas, for whom the storm must have been a terrifying experience and who, if they had no phone coverage, may well be unable to have the comfort of a chat with someone.

Third Age is a nationwide voluntary organisation based in Summerhill, Co Meath, who work to promote the value of older people in communities throughout Ireland.

Third Age has over 1,200 volunteers giving their time variously as active listeners on a Senior Help Line, as tutors teaching English to non-Irish nationals, as peer nutritionists, befrienders, advocates and more.

They also promote the third age as a stage in life when people combine maturity with enthusiasm, experience with energy, realising that this time of life is one of continued growth and fulfilment. And for those rural dwellers who were fortunate enough to maintain phone coverage, Third Age were, as ever, there at the other end of the phone to talk to and reassure those who might otherwise have been cut off from human contact for days.

I spoke to Third Age’s head of communications, Anne Dempsey, about their vital service.

* In the conditions that we recently experienced, to have a service like yours must have been a great comfort for a lot of people.

>>“Yes. Our confidential listening service is open from 10am to 10pm every day of the year. Over 350 trained older volunteers operate it. Older people listening to older callers is a very important aspect of our service, and one appreciated by callers who feel their lives and concerns are understood particularly well by someone in their age group. We are there to listen to what the caller needs and wants to tell us. And we are very well aware that there are a number of rural people who live in isolated areas who must have found the recent storm very frightening. Over the coming weeks we will have a better idea of how many storm-affected people called us.”

* Apart from the recent extreme weather conditions, what are the most common themes expressed by callers?

>>“Well, loneliness and isolation figure prominently and there has been a notable increase in callers reporting break- ins in both urban and rural areas. Given that many callers live alone, this understandably leaves them feeling vulnerable and unprotected. Financial worries are another frequently expressed worry, as are health issues and the cost of medical insurance.

“And more recently, we are seeing an increase in callers who have been devastated by the effect emigration is having on extended families. Our vision is that every older person in Ireland will have our number and know that they can call us and that their call will be confidential.”

* How important do you think it is that older people have someone who they know will listen?

>>“Our slogan is ‘If you need to talk, we have time to listen’. Some people might wonder how we could help. But very many callers do tell us that talking things over, feeling that you are not alone with a problem, realising that someone cares enough to listen can be of real benefit. It can help a person see things in a new and more positive light. Irish people are very compassionate and caring and we would ask them to think of their older neighbours, and don’t assume that someone else is doing it. If in doubt, reach out.”

Safety tips for storms

Third Age Ireland has an advice helpline, 1850 440 444.

When dealing with extreme weather conditions and possible loss of power, Anne Dempsey of Third Age says that the group recommends several strategies.

* Keep a hot water bottle filled during the day.

* Make sure that when you do have power that your radiators are drained and functioning properly.

* Keep active indoors with chair-based exercise. Don’t sit for hours, and try to get outside when possible.

* Invest in non-slip boots.

* Exercise your brain too, with books crosswords etc.

* Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Anne also suggests keeping a supply of emergency rations such as extra batteries for the radio and torch, extra tins of food and candles in the house. And keep that mobile phone charged up.

* Helpline — 1850 440 444

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