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A lonely time of year

Christmas Card
A lonely time of year

Heart of the Matter

Edwin McGreal

CHRISTMAS is, for the majority of people, the most enjoyable time of year. It is a time for families to be together, people to be home from wherever work has brought them.
It is the one time of year that most people end up back home and, unlike the rest of the year, people have time to enjoy themselves.
Unfortunately such a scenario isn’t universal. For some people it is the time of year when their loneliness and isolation most manifest themselves.
Christmas Day especially so - no time of the year is a worse time to be living on your own. It is often people who might appear to be independent that can be the most vulnerable.
Last year Michael McGing of the Westport Branch of St Vincent de Paul placed an advertisement on Mid-West Radio publicising their rural collection where SVP go around to houses in the country and call to people who are on their own and may need some level of support.
He was inundated with calls from outside the county from people who were on their own at Christmas and their stories underlined exactly how lonesome this time of year can be.
“I’ve had callers from all over Connacht and even from Donegal asking me did I know anyone in their area who could bring over a Christmas dinner or even just come over to their house and shake their hand on Christmas Day.
“They are hard phone calls to get, from people who are on their own, but through my knowledge of SVP I’m able to get onto people, people that might leave their own Christmas dinner to bring dinner to a neighbour. It lifts the whole day for the person on their own,” explained Michael McGing.
And often such a scenario comes about from a person whose spouse may have died.
“The parent doesn’t want to be bothering their son or daughter and will say they will see them in the New Year. The daughter or son might be none the wiser because their mother or father would insist that they are ok,” Mr McGing explained.
It is in countless situations like this that SVP provide help and support. Everyone is familiar with the commercialisation of the Christmas period and the pressure put on families. It is inevitable that many people ask for the help of organisations like SVP.
“It is the busiest time of year for us, without a doubt,” he continued.“There are so many pressures for people coming into Christmas. Kids are hooked by glossy ads on TV and everything they see they must have and that’s a huge pressure for parents. Its especially the case for people on fixed budgets and low incomes. We try to respond to it by offering help and support. That could take the form of extra fuel or food vouchers,” he added.
The SVP in Westport has been in existence since 1924 and Michael McGing says the situation isn’t improving, but affecting a different type of people.
“The majority of people coming into SVP have never come into us before. They are mainly people ranging from their mid-twenties to their mid-forties and they have no experience of hardship. They weren’t brought up on it and when they end up having to fend for themselves they can find it hard to deal with,” McGing added.
Foreign nationals are among the new group of people SVP is trying to help while people from Ireland who may have moved west from Dublin also often end up needing assistance, especially at this time of year. The importance of being sensitive in dealings with people is key, according to McGing.
“Our position is that we look at what a problem may be, suggest a solution and the people themselves make the decision. They must always be in control. Who are we to tell them what to do? They have to keep their dignity. For us it’s a privilege to be made welcome in people’s homes and to do what we can,” said McGing.
This year Westport SVP took an unprecedented step of advertising in The Mayo News. It came about simply because of a lack of knowledge of their existence from people who could do with some support.
“The ad is a sign of the times really. We asked people who found themselves in difficulty to write or phone and we would respond and thankfully people have done that. A lot of people mightn’t know we’re here so we decided to advertise,” admitted McGing.
Their work at this time of year extends beyond simply the Christmas period. The need for fuel is something that regularly concerns SVP, particularly with the elderly around Westport.
“I’m certainly aware of a number of elderly people around Westport who are afraid of their lives to switch on the central heating in case it would run out on them in the middle of winter and they wouldn’t have the money to get any more. People on fixed budgets find it next to impossible to be able to pay the €500 up front for a fill of oil that the oil companies demand. I think that has to be looked at,” McGing continued.
Christmas Day won’t see the end of the problems that Christmas will create for those living close to the bread line.
“Christmas will extend well into January. It is then that the bills come in, ESB, phone etc. That’s when the problems can get worse. Our work will continue most of the year round,” added McGing