Poverty and social exclusion manifest themselves differently in rural areas than in urban areas. Disadvantage is a widely used term to describe living conditions where a person or a family experience circumstances or conditions less favourable than other citizens or communities. While rural poverty is widespread, the plight of men who live alone and the research around them, show that men who live alone are more prone to extreme poverty. This may not mean that their poverty is about income, but about other issues that impoverish people. The ability to access key services like transport, shops, medical help, lack of employment, social exclusion, educational disadvantage and loneliness are all factors that escalate poverty for men who live alone in remote rural areas.
This is Tim’s story; I was the youngest of the family of seven who lived on a small unviable farm. My other siblings all went their own way and left as they reached an age where they became independent. My father was elderly by this stage, but my mother was younger, but in poor health. I was expected to look after the farm and be there for my aging parents. I liked the farm and supplemented my income with part-time work in the local quarry. As the years passed I had a very nice girlfriend and was hoping to marry her. But as she was not willing to take on two elderly people, along with myself, we parted company. That is something I regret every day. My father died from lung cancer, no doubt from all the cigarettes he smoked and then that left me to look after my mother. As she got more feeble I had to remain at home in case she fell and to look after meals, washing, cleaning the house and all the other chores that had to be done. I had to give up my part-time job, that was my saviour. I spent a lot of lonely nights sitting by the fire looking at television and wishing things could be different. I was very lonely and as I was confined to mother-sitting, became more and more removed from friends and going out. Mother died when I was fifty- six and I missed her a lot. I had got out of going to the pub to meet up with neighbours and then when the drink driving laws came in, it destroyed the possibility of having a social life or meeting up with men I knew and hear the local gossip. I felt depressed and alone and lost interest in life and became reclusive. If people came I wouldn’t open the door and would sit without any lights on. I wouldn’t answer the phone and didn’t want any conversations.
My life started spiralling downwards. I lost interest in shaving, washing, stopped going to Mass, neglected the animals and the farm. Neglect of the house followed and the house deteriorated. My siblings might come for a few hours as they were all in the town and in the city. Farm life for them and the neglect of the house didn’t encourage them home. They all had their own families and children to care for. Eventually the shame, isolation, loneliness and the loss of company took its toll. I wasn’t eating properly, mostly tea and bread, cooked ham or boiled eggs. I would not light a fire until night- fall to spare fuel and so the old house became damp and cold. The bedroom became mouldy and the bedding needing renewal. As I lived down a boreen, I rarely saw neighbours or had people call. The house didn’t lend itself to visitors, so if someone called , which was rare, I would meet them at the door and make excuses about not inviting them in. After my mother died, my income diminished and even the basics I needed, I couldn’t buy. When the car needed new tyres I wasn’t able to put the money together for about 6 months to replace them. I had lost cattle because I wasn’t fit to look after them. Life was a constant lonely, hopeless struggle.
Then I became very sick and was taken to hospital. I was there for several weeks, along with being sick I was suffering from malnutrition and depression. The doctor said I was not fit to live alone anymore and that I should consider selling the farm and moving where I could be looked after. When two of my brothers came to visit and I told them what the doctor had said, they objected to the sale and said they were entitled to their share. That really depressed me further as they had never given any time to the farm or my parents. They appeared to think that just because I was all alone that they could bully me into thinking they had rights. The farm was left to me but I had been asked by my father not to let it go out of the family name. Seeing that I was never going to have children they thought it should go to one of their sons. I just wished to die and be left alone and in peace. The doctor sent out a social worker to see how I lived and she said the house was uninhabitable. That was the final nail in my coffin. I went to a sheltered home where I continue to live in comfort and in warmth. I don’t miss rural living and the hardships and loneliness that goes with it. I feel I wasted my life and am full of regrets and am sometimes extremely angry at how I ended up. But at least I have a clean bed, showered and clean clothes to wear. I have no friends and I miss not having a partner and children to share my life with. All because of living in a remote rural area where many other men fall into the same trap. ( Name changed for privacy reasons) This is the fate of many single men who live alone in rural areas. Their poverty stretches far beyond what money could fix. Their lives are spent loaded with regrets and sorrow and a hopelessness that is painful and destructive. It is more than being cut off and marginalised from the wider social and economic activities. Especially when men are poorly skilled, unemployed and live in difficult circumstances. Inadequate and cold damp houses, far from public transport, shops and medical assistance, all add to a life of utter deprivation and powerlessness. We forget that these men have social, emotional and cultural needs and the feelings of exclusion and shame all add to their problems. The more isolated they are, the more reclusive they become.
The recent closure of health centres, garda stations, post offices, banks and shops are all adding to the hardships suffered by those in rural areas. For people with little education dealing with Government Agencies is a huge problem. SILC in its recent report said that people who live in rural areas were more likely to live in consistent poverty than their counterparts in the urban areas. A person who is socially excluded is at a greater risk of becoming disabled in both physical and mental health and that adds to further problems in their lives.
Laws governing drink driving have also added to the loneliness and isolation of rural men. They once went to their local pub to meet company and get relief from their lonely lives. Because of the consequences of having a pint and being over the limit and losing a driving licence, this outing is also denied to these men now.
Researchers have found that the existence of the notion of rural idyll concealed poverty, with the poor unwittingly conspiring with their more affluent neighbours to hide their challenging lives by denying its existence. By a perceived loyalty to family, pride, and shame of their living conditions and their limitations they cover up the truth. Sometimes older men will not seek their proper allowances or entitlements and this is a fundamental task for those seeking to tackle exclusion. The stigma of being poor and disadvantaged in rural areas makes it more unlikely for people to self identify problems to anyone.
Part time work with farmers doing agricultural work has fallen by 68,000 in recent years and seasonal work has also diminished, making added income non-existent for men who relied on these ways of contributing to their community and giving them self esteem. High levels of rural emigration has added to the stress and isolation and also the high levels of suicide in rural areas and are all problems often swept under the carpet by government agencies. As a Christian country we should all make an effort to “seek and find those who are forgotten, bring our love to the suffering and deprived” and change the sad existence that so many men must endure in rural areas.
Now that the season of Goodwill is upon us, if you know any single men or women living alone in remote areas near you, or even not so remote, do please give them a call and offer some solace to your neighbour and befriend him/her so that he/she knows they are not alone.