'You’d miss the people most of all': Member of the Irish Wheelchair Association Cork branch talks about life during lockdown

'You’d miss the people most of all': Member of the Irish Wheelchair Association Cork branch talks about life during lockdown
Irish Wheelchair Association member Mary Maher.

People have been cocooning, isolating and adhering to the state-sanctioned restrictions on travel and measures on social distancing for over six weeks due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Such restrictions have posed change in routine and day-to-day activities and for the people for whom contact with others is of most importance, it has been a challenging time coming to grips with what is the new normal.

The Irish Wheelchair Association has been adapting and taking a different approach to how it provides services to its members during the crisis.

The organisation’s centre in Blackrock usually welcomes its members every day of the week holding various different classes in arts and crafts, visual arts, drama, textiles, ink art, pottery, and jewellery making, to name a few.

It is a safe and welcoming space where members have regular contact with their friends and are invited to get creative with regular tutoring and classes and to take part in Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) level 3 and 4 courses that are also offered.

Now, the centre is adapting by changing its model of service which has seen staff members and volunteers calling to check in on its members instead of its members attending the centre.

Staff are doing members’ shopping, delivering hot meals, delivering prescriptions, doing weekly home checks and making regular phone calls to make sure they are coping during the difficult time.

Irish Wheelchair Association member Mary Maher.
Irish Wheelchair Association member Mary Maher.

Members have also received information packs and activity packs containing different materials to keep them busy creating projects, and phone numbers of various helplines have been provided, should members need them.

The centre recently launched an appeal for donations of tablets or smartphones to be distributed to members to keep them connected with each other and their extended families.

Local woman Mary Maher has been a member of the Irish Wheelchair Association for five and a half years and would normally visit the centre three times a week.

The Kerry woman who has made Cork home and has been living in Ballincollig for years is currently in isolation with her son and daughter.

Mrs Maher hasn’t gone outside the door since returning home from the centre on March 12 when it was announced that things were beginning to shut down.

She said that she is lucky to be in isolation with her children and that she is “not as badly off as other people” but she misses her daughters who are living in Edinburgh and Dublin who she has not seen.

“I suppose it’s that people can’t visit you is the hardest thing, you get used to being inside, I like going out but I’m able to contain myself inside as well but it's the fact that nobody can visit you. I have a daughter in Edinburgh and a daughter in Dublin and they can’t come to visit.

Mary Maher's beach artwork created with stones and pieces of wood.
Mary Maher's beach artwork created with stones and pieces of wood.

“I think all that isolation got to me at the start but after a week or two I just adjusted to it,” she said.

She said that staff and volunteers from the centre in Blackrock have been calling regularly and doing “everything they can to help”.

She said she didn’t expect the first visit when the knock on the door came after lockdown was first announced.

“I didn’t expect them and there was a knock on the door and my son answered it and he said, “there’s two men looking for you”.

“I went out and there was Paddy and Thomas from the centre and sure it was like a breath of fresh air to see them. They brought out information packs and activity packs with projects to do and we got Easter eggs as well.” Mrs Maher, who has been in a wheelchair since 2003, said that the situation has taught her that it’s the small things in life that matter the most.

“Big things don't matter, you can’t go anywhere or do anything and I think this has hit everybody, both rich and poor, because before if you had money you could take a holiday, but now you can’t go anywhere and this situation treats everybody the same.

“It gives us our priorities in life and that’s the main thing, family and friends and the smaller things in life and that’s it.

“Money can’t buy anything. In one way it’s a good thing because if money could buy stuff now, the rich would live and the poor would die. That’s what I always think,” she said.

Mrs Maher has been keeping busy with the activities given to her by staff and recently created a picture out of stones and pieces of wood that staff collected while taking part in a beach clean.

But she said that it is the people and the interaction with her friends that she misses the most.

“You’d miss the people most of all now. Even if we didn’t do the projects and if we could just meet up and have a cup of tea it would be nice because the comradeship and friendship is most important.

Irish Wheelchair Association members were given Easter eggs by staff at the Cork centre in Blackrock.
Irish Wheelchair Association members were given Easter eggs by staff at the Cork centre in Blackrock.

“It’s special because of the people you meet, there're so many members at the centre every day. We all get on well together and we’ve good fun as well.” Last October, Mrs Maher was one of three actors from the centre who took part in a performance organised alongside charity partner Pilz on Model Farm Road which ran for three nights in City Hall.

Resource and Outreach Services (ROC) Coordinator with the Irish Wheelchair Association, Ursula Jermyn, said that it is activities like this that members miss during the pandemic but that when they come back to the centre that it will be “one big celebration”.

She said that at the beginning both staff and members were “terrified” because it was a “period of the unknown” but she said that by changing their model of service they are all settling into what is a new normal.

She said that staff members never hesitated in changing the way they operate and were even more eager to help members in need during Covid-19 and volunteers that had been working with the centre consistently before lockdown are still on board, helping with home checks and delivering essentials.

“They’re nearly giddy with it, it’s taken them out of their own isolation and it’s taken members out of their isolation so they’ve just stepped up big time and it’s energising the staff to be honest. There hast been any hesitation by any of them at all which has been great.” 

Staff member Paddy visiting Mary Maher at her home in Ballincollig.
Staff member Paddy visiting Mary Maher at her home in Ballincollig.

She said that staff and volunteers adhere to social distancing measures when doing their home checks but that staff entering the home under the assisted living service wear the required PPE which the organisation is “keeping tight control of” after a donation of 50 face shields were delivered by Kinsale Community College students.

The Irish Wheelchair Association has a large volunteer base across the country but are not directly taking on volunteers during the pandemic, instead people who want to volunteer their time can contact the Cork City Covid-19 Community Response Forum on 1800 222226 or Cork County Council Covid-19 Community Support Programme on 1800 805819.

Ms Jermyn said that it is the community spirit that Irish people are so good at that will get us through the pandemic.

“Community spirit has taken over and the fear gets suppressed when people are busy helping each other. It’s what we as Irish people are so good at,” she said.

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