Fraternal friendship helps George cope with lockdown

Dessie Blackadder

Reporter:

Dessie Blackadder

The extended lockdown period essential to curb Covid19 has left many people struggling to deal with the enforced monotony of daily life.

But for Freemason, George Graham, being at home all day, every day is proving particularly difficult.

Before the onset of the pandemic, George was very active, sociable and was used to traversing the highways and byways of Northern Ireland and beyond more regularly than most. As a Freemason, he met his fraternity each and every month at his Lodge in Ballymena.

The 67-year-old from Ballymena loves his job as a coach driver for a local tour company. He is the man who normally greets with a cheery smile the hundreds of tourists who get on his coach each year to visit attractions both at home and abroad.

"I normally convey tourists around the United Kingdom and Ireland. But I have also toured the continent with the coach tours in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France and Italy," George says.

"In recent years, I was also involved in driving and guiding passengers around Ireland. This has resulted in me having many friends in New Zealand, Australia, USA, Canada and Sweden."

Married with three grown-up children, Noel, Philip and Karen, and four grandchildren, George is happy to admit the last few weeks stuck at home is really starting to negatively impact on his mental health.

"Naturally, I miss meeting lots of different and interesting people and visiting great locations all over the UK and Europe. Like everyone, I crave the routine and discipline of going out to work most days. I'm a naturally outgoing, optimistic and happy person. Still, the short winter days and long cold nights are really starting to hit hard," he says.

"I’m really missing spending time with my sons and daughter and extended family. I especially miss my grandchildren, who I can only see through the window or talk to on the phone at the moment. They are all under 12, and I would just love to give them a cuddle."

When enforced isolation began in March 2020, like so many others, George was able to tend to all those odd jobs around the house we usually don't have time to tackle.

But the current winter weather conditions and low light levels mean that getting outside is difficult and meeting other people to socialise is impossible.

George says: "When the first lockdown was imposed on us, it was Spring, the weather was reasonably good. Fences got stained, walls painted, rooms decorated and gardens and flower beds got special attention, the grass was cut whether it was needed or not and our homes ended up spick and span.

“But in recent weeks it has been hard to get motivated to get up and out and do anything. Therefore, the days pass very slowly because you don't have really have a purpose. I am sure many people of all ages feel the same way."

And while he is already looking forward to getting back out to growing vegetables in his greenhouse, Spring is quite a few long weeks away.

There are still many days before he can enjoy his garden and a family holiday in his beloved caravan.

Until then, he is actively working hard to keep his spirits up.

But fortunately, George has been able to turn for support to his lifelong Freemason friends from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim who have given purpose and meaning to his life in isolation.

Growing up on a farm, he first joined the organisation in 1979 when he aged 26 after seeing what fun, new friendships and connections his brother Jackson was making.

At the time he was living in Portrush but decided to join the Lodge in his home town of Maghera.

Being a longstanding member and an office-bearer of the Freemasons for over 41 years is extremely important to George. He readily admits it has been a lifeline for him before and especially during the pandemic.

"I take part in virtual meetings at least once a month on Zoom, and it's wonderful to be able to connect and chat with old friends regularly. We catch up with what is going on in each other's lives. It's tremendously uplifting and comforting to know that even though I can't see them in person, my Masonic brothers genuinely care about how I am getting on," he says.

"On a practical level, it has introduced to a whole new way of digital connectedness which is fantastic – when it works. Having had broadband issues in recent weeks, I have suddenly realised what a fantastic asset and resource the internet is but also that we shouldn't get too reliant on it. It has become a life support system for so many things.

"The internet is an amazing tool for connecting with friends and family. But I am old enough to remember life before the internet when we had to rely on our own ingenuity to solve problems or entertain ourselves. Those were different times, and I fear we have become a bit disconnected from the joy in life's simple pleasures."

Simple pleasures like writing a letter, cooking a meal from scratch or even playing a favourite childhood game to stir the joy of nostalgia.

And again, this is where the Freemason's organisation has been able to help not just George, but all 5000 members of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim and the broader community as it has just launched The Freemasons Fortnight Challenge in partnership with Age NI.

The Freemasons Fortnight Challenge encourages people to complete a simple and fun activity for 14 days in a row to help them see the positives in life and look forward to brighter days ahead.

"I am currently taking the fun challenges myself," George says.

"So far, I have cooked a big pot of comforting vegetable soup, contacted a distant relative by letter and started researching my family tree. I have even resurrected an old board game, Chinese Chequers, we used to play when the kids were young, which I had forgotten was such good fun!"

"I find it has helped me enormously by giving a focus to the day with ideas for projects that provide me with something to look forward to. Weather permitting, I'm now also walking three to four miles a day which is great for my fitness levels, and it delivers a mental boost.

“Whilst walking, I pass the home of a Lodge widow, Church member, a widower or a stranger and we occasionally engage in conversation at the roadside. It's always good to talk.

"It is so important to take care of both your mental and physical health during the lockdown. Being a member of the Freemasons has really helped me in both those areas. It provides a real sense of belonging and connection to something bigger. Everyone gets a chance to pay kindness forward to others .. The organisation's centuries-old history is a constant reminder that life goes on, and things will change for the better."

Throughout the pandemic, the Freemasons have been supporting their local communities in practical ways with initiatives including, essential bag drops, fundraising and delivery of medical supplies to name just a few.

But providing an informal, friendly and safe arena for men of all ages to connect and communicate is also essential, not just during the pandemic, but all the time.

The sense of supportive fraternity provided by Freemasonry has become increasingly important to its members like George. That's because men in particular often struggle with isolation as they are less like to open up and talk through their feelings, their social networks are generally smaller, and they tend to connect in a real-world setting such as sports events or hospitality gatherings.

George says: "Boredom can be a really serious problem for many people, but we must force ourselves to avoid it and face the future with positivity. What will get you through these difficult days is mindset and attitude. It is just about being positive and finding a purpose or project each day.

"That's why the Freemasons Fortnight Challenge is a brilliant place to start to take a bit of control back and start enjoying your life until we can get back to a bit of normality.

"The Freemasons is a friendly and welcoming organisation which has given me support and direction my whole life. I encourage anyone who feels isolated or alone at this time to contact their local branch where they are guaranteed a friendly greeting and warm welcome.

"It is also important to reach out to other people and stay connected, so you can discuss your feelings or worries or just catch up with old friends and have a laugh – which is the best medicine after all for whatever ails you!" George concluded.

Chief Executive of Age NI Linda Robinson explains the importance of Freemasons Fortnight Challenge: "We know the past few months have been hard for older people. Over the winter, it will be more important than ever to look after ourselves and each other, to keep active and stay connected. This can make such a difference in how you feel.

"We are pleased to partner with the Provincial Grand Lodge of Antrim to support this excellent Freemasons Fortnight Challenge. We share the same spirit that everyone can use a little help from their friends and community occasionally."

You don't have to be a Freemason to get involved with the Freemason Fortnight Challenge, simply visit www.pglantrim.org to get your free downloadable brochure.

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