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Lemon Drizzle Cakes And Radio Show: How 1 Irish County Helps Elderly During Pandemic


The coronavirus has drawn a dividing line between young and old. And in Ireland, that line had a number - age 70. In mid-March, the government of Ireland advised people who were immunocompromised or aged 70 or over to cocoon in their homes, not to leave for any reason, not even to shop or take a walk. As Gregory Warner of our Rough Translation podcast reports, cocooning the elderly became a communitywide project.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: County Roscommon is about 90 miles west of Dublin and the kind of place where you can live for 40 years and still be considered an outsider, a blow-in. Jimmy Hoban moved here in 1974 to teach high school.

JIMMY HOBAN: So you could safely say, at this stage, I've got the Roscommon visa. There's no problem. Yeah, I have settled in. Yes.

WARNER: But Hoban never expected how much he would have to rely on his fellow Rossies until the government made its announcement this March that people aged 70 or over were extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus. Hoban is 68, but he decided to follow the cocooning orders.

HOBAN: I was in now what they were describing as the vulnerable category - vulnerable.

WARNER: Roscommon has one of the oldest populations in Ireland. County Councilor Kathleen Shanagher says they were bracing for the worst.

KATHLEEN SHANAGHER: The arts center here in Roscommon was going to be used if the hospitals were full for bodies and for people to be laid out - you know, coffins, the whole lot.

WARNER: To avoid that scenario, Rossies leapt into action to help the cocooned obey orders, and that meant the Roscommon gardening club and the football league and just groups of neighbors started taking over the lives of the cocooned.

HOBAN: Whether it was picking it up, going to a pharmacist, going to a shop.

WARNER: They'd bring you lemon drizzle cakes, look after your ponies and start your cars for you - anything you had done perfectly well for yourself before.


HOBAN: Suddenly, you started thinking, oh, my God, yes, I'm actually older than I think; I'm actually older than I feel. Suddenly, people have all kind of gathered round you, pointed a finger and said, you're old; you need minding. And you think to yourself, ah, sweet Jesus, no, how could this have happened overnight?

WARNER: Roscommon had a problem - how do you get people to accept help without feeling helpless, and how do you turn cocooning from something claustrophobic into something to be celebrated?


WARNER: The answer from the Roscommon Lions Club was a community radio show.


SEAMUS DUKE: And a very good afternoon to you, and welcome to the Tuesday edition of "The Rossie Way."

WARNER: "The Rossie Way" was created quite explicitly to give a sense of community to people who are hunkered down alone. On any show, you might hear an interview with the parish priest or a local scout leader, even the mailman.


DAN DOONER: On the line is former Roscommoner and Saint Brigid's footballer and local postman Frankie Dolan. You're very welcome, Frankie.


WARNER: Frankie Dolan is here on the show to say he's not just ready to collect your mail - any favor you need.


DOLAN: If they ever need anything at all, just to leave a note in the letterbox or where I'd see it. And just let me know what you need, and there'll be no problem picking it up for them and giving it to them the next day.

DUKE: Perfect. That's Frankie Dolan, postman.

WARNER: Jimmy Hoban says, as jarring as it was to get those offers of help from neighbors he hardly knew, he found a kind of comfort in them. It reminded him of an old Irish tradition, when small farmers would collectively harvest each other's farms, a tradition known as meitheal.


HOBAN: I had an incredible feeling of this meitheal of these people, you know, helping out. In other words, there's seem to be a feeling, look it - this is bigger than any one of us. We're all in this together, and we all have to pull together. Do you understand?

WARNER: Kathleen Shanagher says she hopes what happened in Roscommon during the cocooning period wasn't just about resurrecting traditions of the past, but sending a message to Rossies of the future.


SHANAGHER: I would like to think that down the road, when I'm 70, if I was in a crisis or I needed somebody to do something, that people would help. We have to think, what is it going to be like? We're improving it. If we have to be selfish and say, well, what would I like to see?

WARNER: Cocooning ended last month, as did the daily radio show. But Shanagher and others hope the Rossie way spirit might outlast the pandemic. Gregory Warner, NPR's Rough Translation.


SHAPIRO: Those measures taken in rural Ireland seem to have had an impact. County Roscommon had just 346 confirmed cases of the virus, and Ireland as a whole has fared better than many other parts of the world, with fewer than 2,000 COVID-19-related deaths nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN MCCOY SONG, "THE HUSTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.