The coronavirus pandemic has been hard for us all, but particularly for older people on their own. A little over a year after the country went into its first lockdown, Margery Hookings finds out more about a project run by the Windrose Rural Community Trust to record the thoughts and memories of older people living at home in Dorset.
A series of telephone interviews with older people during lockdown has just been uploaded onto the website of the Windrose Rural Media Trust.
Known for its archive film collection, the charity also works with people in rural communities across Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire in a wide-range of projects. One of them, a partnership with Age UK North, West & South Dorset, and funded by a £5,000 grant from Dorset Community Foundation, has proved to be a real eye opener when it comes to assessing the impact the pandemic has had on older people in the county.
Ali Grant and Debra Hearne spoke to people by telephone and Zoom to record their memories and life stories as well as talking to them about how they have been affected by restrictions during the pandemic.
Says Ali: ‘Like the rest of us, older people have been having to cope with lockdown and lots of restrictions to normal life. However, unlike lots of us, many of these people live alone and have had all their regular activities—such as lunch clubs—cancelled.
‘I feel privileged to have had so many of my interviewees share some pretty personal stuff with me, some of which is just too sensitive to put in the public domain. It is clear that many of them are lonely and have just wanted someone to talk to. One lady told me that it had really helped her to talk to me, and that she felt better.
‘Another lady I spoke to, who I first met a few years ago when I was working on another project, lost her husband in July 2019. They had been married for 64 years, and she had cared for him at home for his last ten years, as he had Alzheimers. She spoke movingly about how he had died in her arms, and how he has helped her through the last few months because she talks to him every day, which is getting her through.
‘I spoke to another lady who regrets her decision to move to Dorset from Surrey a few years ago, as she hasn’t really made any friends, and the pandemic has been a very lonely time for her. She had planned a party for her 90th birthday, which would have been a mass gathering of friends and family from her home town. Obviously that couldn’t happen, and she was really hoping her 91st birthday would be one to remember, for different reasons.
‘It has been very humbling to hear these stories and I wish there was more I could have done for those who are feeling lonely and missing loved ones.’
Along with the sad tales of loss and loneliness, there were happy and some funny stories that came from the interviews. One woman shared her memory with Ali of giving Mary Berry cookery tips in the days before Bake Off.
Ali says: ‘She was doing a book signing in Poundbury and my interviewee was taken by her daughter to get some books signed. The daughter happened to mention to Mary Berry and her mum was an expert toffee apple maker, to which Mary Berry responded that she’d never made them. My lady then proceeded to explain how to do it! As we were recording this story, we were both laughing and wondered if Mary Berry ever ended up making toffee apples.’
One of the older people who spoke to Debra Hearne was Ron Creed, who was born in 1928. He had a tough early life and recalls how food was often short. He relates that health worries were a concern especially pre-NHS. He remarks that when the NHS was born he and his family felt a sense of relief, because financially they didn’t have to pay for health care anymore.
Says Debra: ‘Ron was 11 when the war started. He was evacuated and he missed two years of schooling. He compares the disruption in his education, to how young people today are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic today.’
Ron told Debra: ‘It had a lasting effect on my life because, when you are young and being taught, you’re taught a lot of basic things, that you miss out on. During that time there was no schooling.’
Ron compared what was happening in the world today to those wartime years. He said: ‘We’re going through this COVID-19 virus and basically it’s similar conditions except that it’s a silent enemy that we’re facing now, we don’t know who and where it is and consequently, I think we need some kind of inner discipline to carry out the things that the government have told us and to keep ourselves safe and that’s what they did during the war, to try and keep us all safe and that’s what they are trying to do now.’
Ron went on to explain his thoughts on the comparisons with today’s young people missing out on their education.
He told Debra: ‘I realise it’s so important the period you’re at school, because it only occurs once in your life. You only have one chance at it and I think it’s more important for children to go to school than the actual virus itself…there are similarities between the two. I think today’s parallel is quite distinct. The main is we don’t have to sit in air raid shelters being bombed.’
Ron said to Debra that he had enjoyed talking about his memories and was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about things that were on his mind.
He told her: ‘When you get into your 90s you start to think about your life, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, so it’s nice to put it into some kind of context to help people today know how we suffered during the war years and compare it to today’s suffering.’
Debra said: ‘Feedback from the interviewees was extremely positive. It enabled many of them to reflect on their lives, to relive precious memories, to give something back to others and to engage and participate in a project that will be available for future generations to hear.
‘For some participants, sharing and comparing their experiences during the Second World War to today’s pandemic was important to them as Ron Creed commented. ‘Some participants have felt very lonely and isolated during the pandemic and having an opportunity to share their memories and to reflect on their thoughts and feelings has been positive.
‘Above all the interviewees felt listened too, which they felt helped them make sense of what has been happening in the world. Some of the participants said that it was nice to relive their memories and be able to pass on the audio to their family.’
To listen to the audio interviews, go to Windrose Rural Media Trust’s YouTube page https://www.youtube.com/user/windroseRMT and visit the interactive Close Encounters map on the charity’s website – https://windroseruralmedia.org/close-encounters/