Her name was Flo. She was a widow living alone in the East End of London. Her husband, Albert, passed away a number of years earlier. He was the love of her life and his death was a huge loss, especially as they were not ‘blessed’ with children of their own. Her ill-health meant she was unable to get out and about like she used to in her younger years.
I was a 20 year- old Irish girl, not long after arriving in the big city of London, from the quiet and somewhat smaller city of Kilkenny. I was young and starting out in life. I’m not sure what the initial trigger was, but I decided to volunteer for Age Action. Perhaps I had seen an ad on a bus shelter or on the tube. The idea of spending time chatting with an older person living alone, really appealed to me. I would think of my own grandparents at home and how their house was often like a train station – the hustle bustle of people always coming and going. What would it be like if no-one ever called? I hated the thought of someone in that position, so I signed up to become a volunteer.
When I first started visiting Flo, she wanted none of it! “What on earth would we have to talk about?”, she protested to the Age Action Coordinator. She didn’t know any Irish people and she was also concerned about the big age gap. But she reluctantly agreed to give it a go!
A shaky start led to weekly visits and eventually over 3 years, to a wonderful friendship. Our conversations became richer with every visit and we never once ran out of things to talk about. She was a very special lady who shared her memories of living in London during the war, her life with Albert and all the goings-on in her favourite soap operas. Looking back now, almost 30 years later, I realise what a special time it was and how much I miss those conversations with Flo.
I returned to Ireland many years ago. My life now is very different. With a family and a small business, life is busy. However, in all the busyness, I am becoming more and more aware of the importance of conversation. As a parent, it can feel like a constant struggle to carve out time where we put away digital devices and simply talk. Equally, creating quality time to spend with friends can be a challenge. It is often easier to send a text. But conversations connect us. For us, as individuals and families, they are the threads that hold and strengthen every relationship we have. Without conversation, there is no relationship.
Conversations are also necessary in addressing the big issues facing us as a society. Loneliness is one such issue, now being labelled as an epidemic, with health impacts comparable with obesity and smoking, not to mention the mental health implications. In our ever advancing, technically connected world, we are becoming more disconnected than ever before.
In 2018, a Loneliness Taskforce was established to coordinate a response to the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in Ireland. I read the report from the Taskforce and it got me thinking about what I could do to help. Loneliness affects all ages and groups in society but when I read about loneliness, it makes me think back to my friend Flo and how our conversations were a wonderful antidote to loneliness.
I wasn’t sure what I could do now, to play a small part in addressing the issue of loneliness. Just before Christmas I got my answer! I saw an ad on Facebook for Grandpal, a new organisation connecting nursing home residents with local people who want to make a difference. Immediately it made me think of Flo and how much I enjoyed our conversations all those years ago. I looked into it and discovered that I could become a ‘Grandpal’ in my local area.
So this year, instead of New Year’s resolutions, I have decided to have new conversations. I intend to have better conversations with my family and friends. I also want to have conversations with new friends, so I have signed up to become a volunteer with Grandpal. I have already met some of the other wonderful volunteers and I am really looking forward to getting started with my new pal in Elm Hall Nursing Home.
Yvonne is Grandpal at Elm Hall Nursing Home in Celbridge. If you would like to learn more and become a Grandpal, you can do so here.