‘Without this scheme I would be at home on my own all the time’

SHEILA O’Keeffe is a farmer’s wife from the tiny village of Tullylease, in north west Cork.

In the 1980s, a milk cheque paid for all their costs, but now it barely covers the basics.

The price of feed and manure have spiralled upwards, but what the O’Keeffes get for their cattle and milk has not.

Times are tough, but Sheila’s work with the Rural Social Scheme, a programme to assist farmers and their spouses who are on low incomes, means, in return for community based-work, she has a guaranteed pay packet for her family.

According to Sheila, who joined the scheme in 2004 and is now a supervisor, it has changed her life giving her a sense of identity and a place in the community.

Although there to supplement income — if small farmers are making e10,000-e12,000 a year here they are doing well — the scheme is also a way of reaching out to people, offering a new lease of life.

Gerry O’Sullivan, 52, maintains he would not survive without it, mentally more so than financially.

For Denis Lane too, working under another scheme, the Community Services Programme, life has changed immensely.

His work at a local food centre, to which he walks or cycles eight or so miles, is a vital lifeline which he would not be without.

“Without this I would be at home on my own all the time,” he says.

For many older isolated people in this area, particularly men, work is the only social outlet.

The Duhallow catchment area, which covers north west Cork and parts of east Kerry, exceeds the national average of people over 65 in each of its communities.

A predominately rural area, more than 85% of the population live in the countryside in settlements of less than 200 people.

With tiny winding country roads, depopulation on a massive scale (it has lost half of its population since the foundation of the State) and more than 50 townlands, if rural isolation needed a poster image, this could be it.

Jack Roche who is from the village of Rockchapel, has been working at the coalface for 40 years to sustain and reinvigorate rural communities.

He, along with IRD Duhallow, the region’s rural development EU and government-funded group, work tirelessly to keep the region alive.

It is no easy feat and a constant challenge, especially now.

“Over the early years I watched the massive decline in populations and quality of life within communities,” said Mr Roche.

“In the 1950s Fr Newman, who later became Bishop of Limerick, did a study of Limerick and drew the following conclusions: ‘The possibility is a real one that the future may see Ireland a prosperous nation with a favourable balance of trade and little emigration, but with its people packed into a few cities and huge provincial centres and its countryside a prairie, very sparsely populated by large farmers haunted by the ghosts of dead villages’.”

ACCORDING to Mr Roche, with no investment or opportunities in rural areas or communities, this was a very real prospect.

“While communities continued to highlight their plight, neither national or local authorities or agencies took any heed apart from the odd report that was put on a shelf and left there.

“Rural Ireland was not an attractive place to live in. There were very few social activities, limited educational opportunities and poor infrastructure. The only opportunity was emigration, which sucked the life out of the communities.”

If it was left to the Government, maintains Mr Roche, there would be no rural Ireland.

Although he notes Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Éamon Ó Cuív’s contributions, Mr Roche says it is EU-driven policy which has saved communities from falling further into depression and neglect.

“The first leg-up rural communities got was the arrival of the Leader Programme,” he says.

An EU community initiative for rural development, Leader provides approved local action groups with public funding — both EU and national.

“In the early 1990s, I was a member of the Cork County Council at that time and had suspicions about this new programme, but I quickly got to realise its potential to make an impact in rural Ireland far greater than any county council would ever do.

“For the first time rural communities and rural people could do something for themselves, and it was heartening to see how so many of them grasped this opportunity, and I can honestly say this programme has replaced rural hopelessness with confidence, in Duhallow and beyond. It also helped to sustain and create jobs in local enterprises.”

Government-funded programmes such as the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme and the Rural Transport Programme are also, according to all on the ground, making a major contribution to improving the quality of lives of communities.

But there are always those who somehow slip through the cracks.

President of IRD Duhallow Maura Walsh says the most vulnerable are those who are perhaps long term unemployed and have fallen out of society.

People who don’t access services due to a combination of reasons which hold them back from any real social contact.

“Anyone can be isolated, even someone living in a sprawling urban area, but living rurally compounds the sense of aloneness.

“Our birth rate is quite high in this area and people are living longer but between the ages of 18-40, there is nobody here.

“So of those who don’t leave, you have to ask the question — why? What is the underlying problem?”

According to Ms Walsh there are thousands in the 20 to 45-year-old bracket across the region on disability benefit.

“It is much higher than other areas and shows the extent of the problem, and this is not even counting the older ones, some of whom have more than likely fallen through the system.”

Research within the community reveals that those who experiences mental health issues face chronic unemployment, typically well above 45%.

According to Ms Walsh, in times gone by, vulnerable people like this would once have a role in society.

“They would have been the delivery boy or the yard boy. Someone who would have pottered around the farm yard and was minded within that space, and supported by a family and rural community network.”

Now though, there is no room for these people anymore, and they have been “squeezed out” of society, she says.

“We give them disability and expect them to just do nothing and be OK. There is such a focus on production and skills now that people get left behind.”

A transition to employment initiative was established on foot of this information and more than 40 people have successfully completed training with a view to employment in the community.

Alternative employment schemes see a return to crafts and work that is useful but not necessarily demanding.

Another issue of great concern in the region is suicide, which tends to be higher in the countryside.

A study in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Suicide in Rural Communities, states: “The public image of rural areas being characterised by social stability, integration, and supportive interpersonal networks has been challenged with recent evidence showing a large increase in the suicide rate in these areas.

“Increases have been reported for a number of European countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, and Ireland. The group at most risk of committing suicide in rural areas is males between the ages of 25 and 60, who are unemployed and live alone, and who have a history of psychological disturbance.”

This bears out how Ms Walsh tells it for Duhallow — the breakdown of rural life has caused many to fall by the wayside.

A report by the national council on aging and older people entitled, Loneliness and social isolation among older Irish people, found the loss of community networks, such as reductions in day-to-day callers within communities like the postman, the milkman or the breadman was noted as a reason for further isolation.

Established in 2004, the HSE South’s Farm and Rural Stress Helpline was a practical response by the three agencies to help address loneliness and isolation experienced by people living in rural areas in Cork and Kerry.

Targeted specifically at farmers and people who live in rural areas, the helpline was the first of its kind.

Over a 12-month period, key findings show that 55% of callers to the helpline were male, 62% were single and 50% were living alone

Brenda Crowley, mental health resource officer with the HSE South, said calls to the helpline have been steadily increasing, and many of the callers are older males.

Another more sinister trend Ms Walsh expresses concern about is the way in which older people are treated by their families.

It began in the boom time, she says, and is becoming increasingly prevalent.

“What we are seeing is people, mainly middle-aged and married, with families of their own, who are leaving their parents badly fed and clothed and coming to us asking, what are you doing for my mother?”

It is a spectre almost too horrific to imagine, but again one that is bourne out by cold hard statistics.

More than 1,800 cases of alleged elder abuse were reported to the HSE last year, with the vast majority of cases occurring in homes and the abuse was most likely to be caused by a family member.

Almost 900 alleged cases of elder report were reported in the HSE South, but many of course go unreported. Often too, says Ms Walsh it is emotional, not physical abuse.

“It can be children, nieces or nephews, and they are circling like vultures around these elderly people, waiting for their inheritance. It is very worrying and I don’t like it at all.”

Poverty is a part of it but there is a sense that this is the way these people live.

“They are saving money for their funerals or their children and in the meantime living in crazy circumstances.”

Last year, a report commissioned by IRD Duhallow highlighted the needs of older people.

The main issues identified could translate to any small region in Ireland — inadequate access to transport, housing issues, a gap in local amenities catering for older peoples’ specific needs and safety and security.

The report, which identifies the problems and recommends actions, also revealed a lack of both knowledge and advice for older people regarding available financial opportunities, with older people feeling they were being unfairly overlooked as an inactive market by financial institutions.

More worrying was a finding, from a survey of 100 local elderly people, that the average distance to a GP was 10km to 16km, although there were a few with considerably longer distances to travel.

Another report recently complied by Sinn Féin’s Senator Pearse Doherty, Awaking the West: Overcoming Social and Economic Inequalities, also highlights health issues in rural parts from west Cork to Donegal.

It states that national health policy has become increasingly disconnected from community health needs and that health care resources in are unequally distributed across the regions.

“Smaller hospitals are increasingly seen, not as providing life-and-death services, such as A&E and maternity care, to their communities, but as ‘wasting’ resources that could otherwise be used to build up new specialities and subspecialties now seen as vital to medical careers.

“No country with a modern system of health care has set out to destroy its tier of general hospitals, as Ireland — with one of the lowest levels of hospitals per head of population in the European Union — now plans to do.”

Again, Ms Walsh sees the fallout from the lack of services available, including those who pick up the slack.

“We see people in cold damp houses and suffering from malnutrition. There are a huge number of carers in the area — 1,231.

“Many are at risk of rural isolation and that, topped with a shortage of home care support services, places these people in an extremely vulnerable position.”

Again, IRD Duhallow engages with and supports carers.

Often, says Ms Walsh, just the fact of knowing someone is there to listen and lend a hand goes a long way to making them feel they are not alone.

*HSE’s farm and rural stress helpline 1800 742645.

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