On our first night in Dublin, my mother and I head straight to a pub. We sit at a table across the room from a cheerful woman who looks to be in her eighties. It doesn’t take her long to walk across the room and join us. She grasps her pint of beer and takes a long gulp. We learn that her name is Mary and she welcomes us with céad míle fáilte, Gaelic for “one hundred thousand welcomes.” A man on stage with a guitar alternates between playing traditional Irish songs and nineties grunge tunes.
“This one goes out to Mary,” says the musician. A smile lights up her face as the musician gives his best rendition of the Irish folk classic, “Whiskey in the Jar.”
“I come to this pub every Monday and Friday,” Mary says with pride. “I’m a regular here, you know. Oh, look who walked in the door. I’ll be back in a flash. I must say hello to Old Johnny.”
“Old Johnny” is a couple of decades younger than Mary and he buys her a pint, which she drinks while standing next to him at the bar. She finishes it then stumbles back our way. I wonder whether it’s the beer or arthritis contributing to her unsteady gait. Probably both. Along the way, the guitarist plays another of her favorite tunes and a man in his thirties asks her to dance. Doing the polka in the middle of the room, Mary is in her glory.
“I used to go to the pub at the Gresham,” she says, sitting next to us again, catching her breath. “But I come here now. It’s closer to my bus stop. Not so far to walk. And I get along so well with everyone here. Another pint, will you?” she gestures to the bartender.
“For you, Mary? Anything me darlin’.”
My doctor-brain is firing full speed. Does Mary live alone? Might she fall on the way home?
“Where are you planning to visit while you’re here in Ireland?” she asks. We relay our plans — Cork, the Ring of Kerry, Galway perhaps.
“You must see the Ring of Kerry. I used to take trips around the countryside. Now I can’t leave town for more than a day or two, on account of the warfarin. It’s a drug. I’m not sure if you know what that is, but it’s a darn pain in the behind if you ask me! I have to get my blood checked every second day.”
My anxiety around Mary and her fall risk increases. I wish I didn’t know she was taking a blood thinner. Her risk of bleeding if she fell would be so high. Three more gulps and she’s finished pint three.
“Excuse me, ladies, I must go to the loo. They make me use the staff bathroom now, here on the main floor. Barred from downstairs, I am, on account of my tumble from last year.”
As she makes her way to the bathroom, she holds onto various objects, chairs, the bar, bystanders. When she returns, “Another tune for Mary.” She sits beside us once again and plays the air piano.
When she says she must settle up her tab, I breathe a sigh of relief. The bar staff must be relieved, too. After she stands, the bartender says, “Ah, Mary, don’t be leavin’ us yet. This one is on the house. Stay for another.” And she does.
The rest of our trip is full of moments like this one, where I can’t fully turn my inner doctor off. I cringe a little bit inside while kissing the Blarney Stone, imagining the millions of other lips that have graced the sacred rock in exchange for the gift of eloquence (so goes the fable). At another pub, on another night, I watch an eight-month-old baby smile and kick her feet to the sound of her mother playing the fiddle, but the music is so loud it could damage the child’s eardrum. In Ireland, the prudent and the lively were often at odds with one another. Yet, there was something very special about the spirit of community.
Mary was anything but socially isolated. She had a group of people who she spent time with. They cared for her and looked out for her. The issue of social isolation in seniors is a serious one. According to a report published in 2013 by the Government of Canada’s National Seniors Council, social isolation of seniors increases health risks, such as smoking, heart disease, stroke, depression and even suicide. When seniors are socially isolated, they are also at increased risk of problem drinking and falling, the very same concerns I had with Mary.
In the age of loneliness, perhaps I can quote the Irish writer Oscar Wilde when he said “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Sarah Fraser is a general practitioner who blogs at Sinus Rhythm.
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