A new book chronicles the first 40 years of the charity that ensures no-one dies alone and poor anymore, says Helen O’Callaghan
At the National Library of Ireland for the launch of ‘ALONE; The First 40 Years’ was author, Valerie Cox, left, with service users Ann McCuley and Mary Connolly. Picture: Jason Clarke
It was an annual feature of Valerie Cox’s childhood in 1950s Dublin: the pre-Christmas visit to the tall, old building, with creaky floorboards, that housed the Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers’ Society. It was in a laneway near Dublin Castle.
Every December, her mother, Imelda Fitzpatrick, would ring from the public phone on her street for an appointment at the city’s oldest charity, founded in 1790.
“As small children, we’d go with my mother — she’d get three names and addresses of people who needed help. She’d make up little hampers with basics like eggs, rashers, sausages, potatoes, fresh vegetables. My dad would borrow granddad’s Morris Minor and we’d drive around the inner city — Sheriff Street, Dame Street.
“There was absolute poverty in Dublin then — you wouldn’t see the same sort of poverty now. Very old men and women living in one tenement room, with no running water — everything they had in one room, usually in a big old building with a little huxtery shop underneath.
"Very often, there wouldn’t even be a lock on the room.”
Awareness of people who were “very lonely, very badly off” was instilled in Cox, a former RTÉ reporter, whose work with the broadcaster gave a voice to the voiceless.
So when ALONE — the charity that supports older people to age at home — approached Cox to write a book chronicling their 40-year history, she said yes.
Her dad, Des, along with a “gang” of co-workers from the ESB, used to collect “a few bob” every year for the charity. “I love ALONE,” says Cox. “I’ve gone out with them — when I was doing stories about loneliness, they always gave me people to interview.”
She’d love to have met Willie Bermingham, the young fireman who founded ALONE (A Little Offering Never Ends) in 1977, after he discovered the bodies of three older people in their homes — one old man, whose body had been there a long time, had collapsed under the stairs while putting a shilling in his gas meter.
ALONE: The First 40 Years chronicles the poverty, isolation, and horrific conditions endured by many Dubliners 40 years ago, as well as the charity’s many achievements: e.g. it has built housing complexes and its volunteers have befriended thousands of older people.
ALONE has doubled in size in the last four years, demand for assistance has tripled, and volunteer numbers have tripled in response. In 2016, there was a 42% increase in the numbers of people using ALONE’s befriending service, with 4,500 supported nationwide.
“Their office is a hive of activity, just buzzing. So I’d go in early on a Saturday morning, about 7am, and stay until about 1pm, often with my son, Aengus, and start going through the files.
"ALONE kept the most amazing archive — they chucked everything into boxes from the time it began: every letter, minutes of every meeting held. Last year, they got an archivist to sort it all out.”
Cox is fascinated by handwritten minutes and “lists of things” — and her fascination with the raw, human stories encountered daily by the charity is integral to the history she has compiled.
The dire living conditions in Dublin, particularly in ALONE’s early years, are sober reading. Cox recalls an old widow on South Circular Road, “found dead on New Year’s Day, her Christmas hamper unopened”; an “older woman in Gardiner Street burned to death after falling into a coal fire on which she tried to boil potatoes”; and a 70-year-old living in an attic flat on Ormond Quay, who had to climb 64 steps to her “cold, isolated room”.
There are also stories that bring a wry smile: the minutes of one, early ALONE meeting record an urgent call to the office. An old woman was sitting on a chair in Ranelagh.
“She appeared to be cold, dejected and had all her belongings beside her on the path. The concern was she’d been evicted. Willie Bermingham went to investigate, only to discover she was a flower-seller, waiting on a delivery of flowers.”
Bermingham wouldn’t be silenced, says Cox.
“He fought for people. He prevented so many evictions. He fought with landlords who didn’t want these old people in their flats in the ’70s, when they could get more rent. One landlord pulled slates off a roof to get an old woman out.”
She cites another big achievement of Bermingham’s: ending the ‘Pauper’s grave’ — in 1988, Dublin Corporation accepted the use of ALONE’s millennium burial plot, at Glasnevin Cemetery.
This was something Bermingham had worked for, ever since he’d seen a coffin (of a man who’d died destitute) in a wheelbarrow bound for an unmarked grave, without funeral service and accompanied by no mourners.
Before the millennium plot, says Cox, poverty-stricken older people hoarded every penny for their funerals, so as to avoid the ‘Pauper’s grave’.
Bermingham, who died in 1990, never intended ALONE to be permanent, believing no charity should be doing the government’s job.
“He’d be horrified to think ALONE is still needed, 40 years later,” says Cox. And yet, it is. And nobody’s better-placed to see this than ALONE CEO, Sean Moynihan.
“We’re seeing it on the ground already. The numbers of older people are going up at a huge rate. It’s the fallout of a positive — people are living longer — but we have more people living on their own and there’s less in the community to support them.”
Time was, says Moynihan, when there’d have been six to eight people living nearby to support one older person in a community — as well as banks, a post office and shops, too.
But with family units becoming smaller and people moving away to work, isolation and loneliness are hugely on the rise.
“There’s a lot of medical evidence to show things start going wrong then — isolated, lonely people die younger. They don’t eat as well. The physical standard of where they live reduces,” says Moynihan, who joined ALONE in 2008.
A week later, Lehman Brothers collapsed; the recession was in full swing. “The board of ALONE and I decided now was the time to reinvigorate ALONE. Now was the time of need. We’d grow in a recession — we’d come out on the streets and we’d multiply our volunteers.”
ALONE provides support coordination, housing with support, and befriending and campaigning services to over 1,000 older people nationwide weekly.
“We ask older people ‘what are the blockages to you living well at home?’ We go through the different parts of their lives, empowering them to address the blockages that are making life difficult for them.
"An older person might have five things going on. They might need Meals on Wheels, transport, help to make a will, they might need to get access to two parts of the health system.”
Today, ALONE is no less ambitious than it was in 2008. Knowing that, in the next 30 years, we’ll go from one in 10 Irish people being over 65 to one in five, ALONE plans to support 20,000 older people directly by 2022 and to grow their frontline volunteers from 700 to 7,000 by the same date.
“It’s like moving a mountain,” says Moynihan.
But ever since a young fireman gave up a packet of cigarettes a day — and spent the money printing posters to bring some humanity to older people living and dying on their own — ALONE has been in the business of moving mountains.
ALONE: The First 40 Years, Valerie Cox, Veritas Bookshops, €15, and at Eason’s Bookshops.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved