We visit an Age NI day centre in east Belfast to speak to staff and service users about combating loneliness

80-year old Robert Atkinson reveals: ''Age NI day centre gives me a sense of purpose.''

Robert Atkinson and Mabel McCracken having a chat in Age NIs day centre at the Skainos Centre
Robert Atkinson and Mabel McCracken having a chat in Age NIs day centre at the Skainos Centre
Robert Atkinson and Mabel McCracken having a chat in Age NIs day centre at the Skainos Centre

Robert Atkinson comes to the Skainos Centre five days a week – two as a service user and three as a volunteer.

A lot has changed for the 80-year-old in the past 14 years and he believes if it wasn’t for Age NI he might not still be around today.

In 2005 Robert suffered a stroke and found himself in a very difficult situation.

Centre manager Wendy McKillion with Robert Atkinson
Centre manager Wendy McKillion with Robert Atkinson
Centre manager Wendy McKillion with Robert Atkinson

He said: “I was living on my own. To be truthful I was in a very dark place. I’m not saying I was suicidal but probably close to it.

“I was 66. It was a strange thing. All I wanted to do was stay in the house and lock the door, but still the craving was there for company. I’d stand at the window hoping that the people walking past were coming for me.

“There’s a story going around about a person who was so lonely that he would post himself a letter just so the postman would come to the door to deliver it. That is very profound when you get to that stage. I wasn’t as bad as that but not far off it.”

Through Chest, Heart and Stroke, Robert found out about the Age NI club at North Road which ultimately led to his salvation: “I turned up and what I saw actually amazed me – 15 elderly gentlemen discussing everything you can think of from finance to government to football to the shipyards.

A collection was made of blankets and shoeboxes for Serbia
A collection was made of blankets and shoeboxes for Serbia
A collection was made of blankets and shoeboxes for Serbia

“This is exactly what I needed in my life at that time.

“They were all strangers, and quickly became friends. Most of them have passed on unfortunately but we do have the present days men’s club. We still have 15 members and they are all fairly active and they are all great friends.”

Robert said: “You have to take the step, but there is help there if you do.

“Age NI do provide excellent help. There’s no doubt about it they go out of their way to encourage you to attend and to interact with other service users. And of course you have a meal here every day and a bit of chat.

Some of the participants at Age NI enjoying a game of bingo
Some of the participants at Age NI enjoying a game of bingo
Some of the participants at Age NI enjoying a game of bingo

“I’m here every day. I’m a service user two days a week a volunteer the other three days. It’s such a wonderful service that I want to give something back.”

Robert, who used to work in the meat industry, commented: “Work is important because it gives you a sense of purpose. Age NI gives you that same sense of purpose, a sense of being.

You know there are people there willing to help you out.”

Discussing loneliness he said: “The loneliness factor is a strange one, you could be at a football match in a crowd of 50,000 and still be lonely.

“Life is so fast with the younger generation it’s hard to blame them for not checking on elderly neighbours. It’s important for older people to look out for each other.”

Mabel's story

Mabel McCracken, who has been coming to Age NI for the past three years, agreed with Robert.

“Every time you’re out you should say ‘hello’ – it’s important to be friendly,” said the 74-year-old.

Mabel told her story of how she came to be living on her own: “I was a shorthand typist. I married my husband in 1946. He was a cook during the war (World War Two). We lived in Cyprus for three years and had two children – a girl and a boy, Michael and Anthea.

“My dad was in a home and my mum wasn’t great by herself as she got older. I had divorced and a got a flat in Clarawood (east Belfast) to be near my mum and dad. Now they’re both gone.

“All my aunts and everyone are gone except one cousin who comes to see me every Sunday and takes me shopping. My ex-husband is dead and my children, who live in Peterborough, come to see me every summer.

“When I broke my leg and was in hospital for six weeks I had to find somewhere else to live that was better suited to my mobility.”

Mabel, who now lives in secure accommodation for older people in east Belfast, said: “Half of the place is residents who can’t get out at all.

“I’m able to get out with my trolley if I order a taxi. Once a week I get picked up in the minibus and taken here. I’m the first on the bus.

“I really look forward to it, everybody is so good and nice. The people here feel like family.

“The rest of the week gets very lonely. I watch TV but it’s not the same as talking with real people.

“It’s important to encourage people to take that first step out of the house, there’s always help at the end of it.”

Wendy is head of a very happy family

Age NI’s day centre at the Skainos Centre is run by Wendy McKillion who is in the strange position of being ‘head of the family’ despite being younger than all of the people she cares for.

The 51-year-old said: “It all starts when I have a referral from social services. I leave the centre to pay a home visit to assess the older people who really need to get out of the house, the people who are really isolated.

“It is nice being in the position to offer somebody a social day at the centre – their lifestyle improves as soon as they set foot through the door.

“They’re having a three-course home-cooked meal from our cook that we have on site. Jean’s been with us for 23 years.

“Basically here at the centre the staff provide a good social day for service users. If they’re having a good day we’re having a good day.

“I have an open door policy that anyone at any time can come and have a private chat with me. They all have my mobile, they can get me any time and believe you me they do.

“It’s good security for them. If someone hasn’t turned up I’ll try to ring them or ring their next of kin, then go round and check on them.

“They feel like my family. Some people only come in one day, some come in two, some come in three. It depends on individual needs.

“I’ve been looking after older people from I was in my twenties. It doesn’t get any easier when they pass away.”

Wendy, whose twin sister Gilly also works for Age NI, is full time with the organisation while many others lend their support on a voluntary basis:

“The volunteers are worth their weight in gold. They could be semi-retired, they could be students, they could be people like Robert (who is both a service user and volunteer). All the time they give is appreciated.”

Recently Age NI teamed up with Blythswood Care to put together a relief package containing 88 blankets and 113 shoeboxes to be sent to Serbia.

The group has had its share of celebrity mums with both Van Morrison and Dan Gordon’s mother attending.

Proof that you don’t have to be alone to suffer from loneliness

Lucy Quinn is proof that it is still possible to be lonely even when you come from a very large family.

The east Belfast woman has eight children, 18 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.

She said: “I see my family very regularly but there’s some days I’m just sitting in the house on my own. I bought myself a recliner chair and I’ve got a (walking) frame to help me when I need to get up.

“I’d read magazines and do crosswords books to put the time in. I buy them to keep my brain active. I’d watch some TV as well.”

She said: “I originally came from down by the shipyards. My father worked there and my brothers-in-law.

“My husband died 26 years ago. He died aged 52 and one of my sons also died aged 52.

“It’s heartbreaking when you lose people who are very close to you.”

She commented: “It seems strange to say I get lonely when I’ve got such a big family but loneliness isn’t straightforward.”

Lucy, who lives with her youngest daughter Karen, said: “One night I’ll have seven (family members) in, sometimes there can be 12 or 14 of them in. You never know until they press the buzzer who will be coming.

“I have 34 grandchildren and great grandchildren. I think it’s 18 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren.

“I give them all money for birthdays and Christmas. There’s too many to keep track of all their interests.

“That’s how I’d spend most of my money. I save up. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink and I hardly ever go out.”

Lucy has been coming to Age NI for 22 years next May: “They used to be up in the North Road, I started off there.

“A girl called Valerie who used to the run the club, she said to myself and a couple of neighbours to come along. That was the start of it.

“I’m disabled, but not as much then as I am now.

“I love coming here. I come one day a week. When my daughters are all working it gives me something to look forward to.

“I love everything here, it would be the only exercise I get.

“The cook is brilliant, Jean has been here since day one.

“The craic is brilliant, I might be disabled but I can still carry on a joke.”

Older people in numbers

1 in 3 older people are lonely in NI

100K older people in NI say that TV is their main form of company

Age NI has a total of 12 day centres across Northern Ireland

0.5million people in the UK can go five or six days without seeing or speaking to anyone

There are 285,000 people over the age of 65 living in Northern Ireland

How to help lonely people

Age NI are at the forefront of change, enabling older people to have a voice and to remain independent, supporting those who need help in society and inspiring people to love later life.

They help thousands of older people every year, providing advice, care and support when it’s needed most.

If you suspect someone you know may be lonely, you can help by:

Being there - Simply being there for the person can let them know that someone cares. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are feeling or if there’s anything you can do to help. Having someone who is willing to listen could be a great comfort.

Encourage and support them to get help - Reassure them that it’s possible to feel better with the right help. They may need some support to make new social connections or access services designed to tackle loneliness, such as Age NI day centres, and Wellbeing services.

Be patient - When people are lonely, particularly if it’s associated with poor mental health or physical health, they may get irritable or feel misunderstood by others. You may need to offer gentle assurance.