Sean Moynihan from Alone
Seán Moynihan has been Chief Executive Officer of ALONE since 2008. ALONE, the organisation that supports older people is managing a national support line and additional supports for older people who have concerns or are facing difficulties relating to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland. ALONE is a member of the National Public Health Emergency Vulnerable People Subgroup.
During Seán’s time, ALONE has more than trebled the amount of older people supported to age at home. This is a response to meet the increase in demand from an ageing population. There are 20,000 extra over 65 year olds every year in Ireland, with 426,331 people over 70 (2016’s SCO statistics).
Seán’s vision is that every older person has the opportunity to age happily and securely at home. Under his direction, by 2023, ALONE will support 45,000 older people nationwide with the help of 9,000 volunteers.
On March 28, the HSE introduced cocooning measures for people over 70. On Tuesday, May 5, phase one of the restrictions were lifted for the over 70s. On Tuesday morning, I spoke to Seán about the effect of cocooning and how ALONE and society can help our older generation.
Sean, how have ALONE services changed since cocooning was introduced?
We managed to not only maintain our own services, but we also had to augment them to create a support line. With the support line, people were driven to us.
The Community Call has been a great initiative, with local authorities, government departments and the HSE all working together. A dedicated phone line is operational in every county and the national number 0818-222024, which is also our number.
We give out Covid-19 public health information - where practical supports are needed. We either carry out the supports ourselves or through partner organisations - we are currently working with 40 other NGO’s (non-profit organisations). If that doesn’t work, we go to the local authorities and they resolve the issue.
We also have several ‘good morning services’ around the country. We have the ability and the time to listen and we are specialists around older people. Some people we are ringing have huge levels of anxiety and concern. We give them plenty of help in dealing with anxiety and in creating a purpose in their day – how to get up, get dressed, get moving and how to maintain their own physical and mental health. We identify those who are most vulnerable and ring them back several times a week.
How necessary was/is cocooning?
The problem we have with this virus is that it’s ageist.
You can be one of these super agers, who are fit, run marathons and volunteer to help others. These people were totally disempowered. They are head of their households and all of a sudden they have to sign forms to get other people to collect their pensions.
That was an enormous change for these people. For them their expectations were to be healthy and contributing to society. All of a sudden they weren’t allowed do that.
I think cocooning was necessary, the medical people are only learning as they go along. So unfortunately for those older people who are generally healthy and well, this virus can hit them harder because of their age.
What impact do you expect that will have had on mental wellbeing of those who have been cocooning for the past five weeks?
We would normally get one to two calls a week where people would express suicidal ideation. Up to last week we were getting three to four calls a day from people who would express to us suicidal thoughts or a willingness not to go on.
Some people had mental health issues going into this pandemic and now they have been exacerbated. People that were not stressed in their lives before, have become stressed, and people that weren’t anxious, have become more anxious. Then there’s people who already had health concerns - they found themselves pushed into a very difficult place.
That is part of the reason why the Government has made the decision to balance the physical health threat of the virus, compared to the physical and mental health threat of older people. ALONE supports that older people can now take exercise and go out, we think it’s a balanced decision.
How will our society look after the knock-on effects of cocooning?
We have to keep social cohesion going in the next few months. Economic factors have to come into the equation, but we have to keep moving as a unit, and follow public health guidelines. Older people will make sensible decisions and ultimately all of us need to not part take in risky behaviour.
Everybody is concerned that now we have a roadmap, that people will do things earlier and this could lead to the virus coming back.
What did the older people miss the most while cocooning?
The ability to make decisions. If they wanted to hug their grandchildren, it was their choice, their life and their way of working. That loss of routine, loss of empowerment, loss of autonomy independence was missed most of all.
We have to be very careful in the long term that older people are not stigmatised.
Do you think a lot of social activities/traditions are gone for good?
For 2020, it’s all going to look very different. For the psychology of it, we are all going to have to take it week by week.
There’s an optimist in me that thinks if we all do the right things, everything will open up quicker. That’s not based on anything scientific, but when people work for unity of purpose things always come quicker.
Look at the amount of innovation in services and in industry that has come about. I think families will be innovative too and will find ways. I look out my window and people are playing balcony bingo and Mr & Mrs!! There has even been a disco for the kids, where we were all dancing on our balconies! That’s community spirit.
As an optimist, what words of encouragement can you share?
If older people need somebody to talk to, or if they have concerns regarding housing, health, finance and Covid-19 - we really encourage them to reach out to us. We will work with you, but we will also reach out to other agencies to solve your concern.
To the community as a whole, I say keep calm and keep going. People have been wonderful, so keep going as a unit. Like any good team we will achieve what we want to achieve.
What work does ALONE do in Kilkenny?
We do an awful lot of work with St Luke’s Hospital regarding discharge and we have a couple of hundred volunteers.
People don’t always realise the amount of reach we have. We are sometimes seen as a traditional Dublin organisation, but ALONE has been in Kilkenny for two years now and we work very close with the HSE and in partnership with the GAA.
Traditionally, volunteers visited older people to give them emotionally and practical support. With these visits, we are combating isolation and loneliness, but they also help older people with particular supports and linking them into social activities. The volunteers are backed up by staff, who deal with support co-ordination, which is dealing with health, housing, transport issues.
A lot of these visits cannot happen now.
At the moment for Covid-19 reasons, a lot of the home visits are not happening. However the volunteers are ringing several times a week, as well as carrying out the practical supports for older people.
Communities have been tremendous during this pandemic, but around 70% of the older people that are ringing us at the moment are on their own. If they are reaching out to us or to the local authorities, maybe they didn’t have the support structure before all this started. These phone calls have really highlighted this.
For us, it is not only about providing Covid-19 support, we are working on a huge phase of long term supports for those older people that had to reach out in this scenario.
The Kilkenny ALONE Centre is located in St Canice’s Neighbourhood Centre, Butts Green, Kilkenny. The support line, 0818-222024, is open 8am to 8pm every day. When older people call the helpline ALONE volunteers can assist them and put them in touch with supports in their local area.