A few kind words mean the world to older people who live alone.
‘Hello, how are you getting on today?’ Tom Harrison will ask.
Tom, 67, is sitting in a small office on the outskirts of Roscommon town: the former Bord na Móna executive is a volunteer for the Friendly Call Service, one of many such organisations around the country, from Cavan to Cork, that daily telephone older people.
The Roscommon service has nine volunteers — all of them of a similar age to the 155 people they call in the area — and one full-time officer.
Established in 2008, the service provides practical advice on, say, fuel or water charges, but it is also a friendly voice at the end of the phone, a substitute for a neighbour knocking on the back-door.
Loneliness in Ireland is a curse: because of changes in our culture, and the emigration of children and grand-children, the number of older people who feel bereft and vulnerable has increased hugely.
The Senior Helpline, in Dublin, another telephone service for the elderly, earlier this year received 28,000 calls, twice as many as it can cope with and an increase of 5,000 in two years.
Loneliness, exacerbated by a lack of social contact, and by relatives emigrating for work, has resulted in many people of pensionable age feeling they have no-one.
A spokesperson for Third Age, which manages the Senior Helpline, says:
“Emigration of sons and daughters has a particularly harsh impact on many older people and one which has been largely ignored in policy debate.”
But it isn’t just the over-70s who are lonely. Helplessness can affect people of any age.
And with the excitement of Christmas over, and with the long dark nights and with family returned to their respective homes, this time of year is critical for people who feel abandoned, adrift, unwanted.
As Shane Kelly, a director for the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP), says:
“We can all be affected by loneliness from time to time, at any stage in our lives and at any age.
“People in relationships can experience loneliness, because loneliness is not based on how many people are around you, but, rather, on how meaningful the relationships are.”
Of course, the main sufferers are older people, many of whom — either in the cities or in the countryside — have watched the changes in lifestyle in our society with increasing trepidation.
A recent report by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul found that while older people in the countryside have a largely positive view of ageing — enjoying their retirement in relative comfort and contentment — loneliness, poor health and worries about their children and grand-children cause them stress.
A census report from the Central Statistics Office shows that in Ireland there are 535,393 people over the age of 65.
Estimates predict that by 2041 one in four people will be over the age of 60.
So it is services like Friendly Call Service and volunteers like Tom Harrison that provide succour to those who are isolated and withdrawn.
In a heart-breaking series of comments provided to the Friendly Call Service in Roscommon, one older woman wrote:
“It gives me an assurance that if a caller does not get an answer from me, she will contact my neighbours.
“It gives me peace of mind and I can talk to the caller about anything and, as I live alone, all I talk to for most of the day is my dog.
“I don’t have much social interaction, but my Thursday evening call with Friendly Call gives me a chance to unload, find information or services, or even ideas on what to cook.
“I am the last call they make on a Thursday evening, which, I believe, is the caller’s last call of the week.
“It rounds off Thursday for me, and then I can go to bed happy and content.”
Another wrote: “Oh, my Thursday call means so much to me. I tell my friends about my Thursday friend and everyone knows of her.
“I look forward to my chat and, as I don’t really leave the house, I would be lost without that call.”
The repercussions of loneliness and isolation can result in depression, for people of any age who feel lonely.
According to the voluntary mental health group, Aware, an extraordinary 300,000 people in Ireland suffer from depression.
Women are more likely to have depression than men, with one in four of them receiving counselling or treatment at some point in their lives, compared to one in 10 men.
Again, the major factors, aside from alcohol or substance misuse, are worries about money, unemployment and being socially isolated.
Loneliness is an issue that experts, such as Shane Kelly at the IACP, are seeing more frequently.
He says: “Older people can be more at risk of suffering from loneliness, because they are more likely to be alone.
“Modern family breakdowns can splinter family groups and so connections can be lost, such as those with grandparents and grandchildren.
“Life circumstances can trigger loneliness, such as emigration, family disputes, relationship breakdown or bereavement.”
Mr. Kelly also highlights the problems of loneliness and depression in men of pensionable age.
He says: “Men are living longer than ever before and are starting to outlive their female companions, in a lot of cases.
“It appears that men do tend to rely on their female partners to keep them socially connected and this can slip away after the death of a wife or partner.
“As with any situation, once e men begin to withdraw and isolate themselves, they can lose contact with their friends, family and neighbours.
“Men can also disengage from social services, such as doctors, community groups or previous work colleagues — not wanting to be considered a burden.
“In addition, men are much less likely to ask for help or tell anyone if they are unhappy, particularly if they are older, and so can withdraw further.”
But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The IACP, and other national support groups, vigorously make the point that people can emerge from a deep hole of isolation and loneliness.
Mr. Kelly’s clarion call is simple. He says: “It’s important to remember that the situation you are in, and the feelings you are experiencing, are temporary. It will change and this is true for all, in any situation.”