June 14, 2011

IRELAND: It's never too late to make new friends

DUBLIN / Irish Independent / Lifestyle / June 14, 2011

Socialising can be a problem as you get older but
Cultural Companions aims to change all that

RETIRED ship's captain Tony O'Grady loves the theatre, enjoys jazz and wouldn't be averse to a trip to the National Concert Hall or the Leopardstown races. The problem is, he's got no-one to go with.

As he avoids driving after dark and dislikes being alone in the city at night, he tends not to attend such events.

But that's all about to change, thanks to the launch of Cultural Companions, a new scheme to provide more opportunities for older people to enjoy the culture and arts scene.

The project, which piloted last month with events in Dublin and Cork, aims to develop local networks of people over the age of 55 who can meet regularly and go out together to such events, either with another person or as part of a small group.

"We'll be organising a series of events as opportunities for people to meet up and to get to know each other. These can be anything from going to films to lectures about art," says programme manager Emma Connors.

"Friendships will grow out of that and people may start organising trips for themselves. Every fortnight or so, we'll be inviting our members to an event."

As part of the programme, organisers are looking to recruit volunteers who can offer transport or companionship to people who would like to be involved in the initiative.

For pensioner Tony, who lives near Enniskerry in Co Wicklow, it's just what the doctor ordered.

"It's exactly the kind of thing I was hoping somebody would set up! I see Cultural Companions as a way to open the door for people, particularly those living alone. I see it as a network of friends with mutual interests that they can enjoy together.

"It's a way of being able to get out and go places I wouldn't be able to go to on my own -- the Japanese Gardens, Collins Barracks, the Leopardstown races or even a picnic in the Wicklow mountains.

"I do drive, but because I don't have a companion I tend not to go places. Yet I'm very interested in outings," says the 74-year-old.

"It means that I'm able to enjoy outings that I previously wouldn't have been able to engage in because of lack of a companion.

"All these things tend to be on in the evening and I don't really like driving after dark or being out late on my own, from a security point of view -- I'd feel safer if I wasn't alone."

His enthusiasm is mirrored in the avalanche of responses to advance publicity about Cultural Companions, which is an offshoot of Bealtaine, the national festival celebrating creativity in older age.

Before the Dublin launch of Cultural Companions even took place last month, 70 people had signed up, says Connors -- she's been getting an average of 10 enquiries a day about the scheme.

Interest in Cork, where the programme was launched recently, has also been very encouraging.

"People are phoning either because they don't have the same social networks that they used to have, they've relocated to a new house or have been bereaved and find they don't have an opportunity to go anywhere. Or simply that their friends are not interested in the same things they're interested in."
Funded by the Bord Gáis Foundation and developed by Age & Opportunity, a group whose aim is to increase the participation of older people in society, Cultural Companions will focus primarily on Cork and Dublin for the next few months but a national expansion is in the pipeline.

"We are already getting calls from places like Donegal, Limerick and Wexford asking about it, so from October we would look at rolling it out around the country," says Emma.

Cultural Companions is just what retired secretary Deirdre Connors, who lives alone in Kimmage, has been looking for. The sixty-something, who says her friends aren't interested in attending art or cultural events regularly -- they have other commitments -- has a wide range of interests but, like Tony, has difficulty in finding somebody to go out with.

"I like the theatre and attending concerts and I enjoy visiting art galleries -- the problem is finding someone to go with on a regular basis.

"Now I'm hoping to meet people of a like mind. Although I couldn't afford to go to the theatre every single week, there are lots of things that cost nothing -- visiting museums, art galleries. It'd be really lovely to go to with someone who enjoys it as much as I do and who has the time for it.

"I'd be interested in forming friendships with someone who goes to Cultural Companion events and who would also be interested in other outings, maybe going to other cities as well as Dublin."

Cultural Companions is free to join and, as part of setting up a recognisable brand for the organisation, members will receive a keyring and badges.

"This is not about organising trips for older people, it's about setting up a network which allows opportunities for friendships to grow naturally," emphasises Emma.

"One woman who phoned me was just getting over cancer and was living on her own and has struggled to go out."

Bealtaine coordinator Rebecca McLaughlin points to the proximity of two women who each contacted Cultural Companions to put their names on the list.

"They live less than 20 doors apart on the same street and had no idea that the other wanted to go to stuff!

"We know there are real issues and barriers preventing people from taking part in arts and cultural activities -- transport, booking tickets or lack of people to go with.

"Over 100,000 people take part in the Bealtaine festival but we know that if we can tackle those barriers, it may allow opportunities for many more older people to engage more actively in the arts."

The idea for the scheme was born when Rebecca heard about an elderly lady whose husband had recently died.

"This lady wanted to go to something but had nobody to bring her so another lady volunteered. I came back into the office after this conversation and decided there was an opening there for something which would provide opportunities for older people to get involved in cultural events and also empower older people to help other older people."

The organisers are currently encouraging venues such as art galleries, theatres and culture centres to get involved. In this context, it is worth noting that currently 11pc of the population, or 436,000 people, are over the age of 65.

It's predicted that by 2021 the figure will rise to 15.3pc. Other facts worth noting are that 89pc of older people are self-sufficient and in this country, the 65-plus age group have an income of €46.6bn.

"We would hope that such venues would see it as good business and would want to develop older audiences," says Emma.

As part of that she hopes businesses would offer special rates or discounts or organise talks with artists.

For more information contact Emma Connors on 01 8535178 or email emma.connors @ageandopportunity.ie