The generation gap has never been more acute than 2020, as large swathes of our older people were locked away behind the unflattering "cocooning" label. 

However a school project undertaken by a group of Meath schoolgirls prior to the pandemic proved invaluable to older people when Covid-19 hit.

Last year, RTÉ's Prime Time filmed students from Eureka Secondary School in Kells collaborating with a group of elderly locals on an innovative project. 

The transition year students developed an eight-week programme with senior citizens to help combat loneliness and social isolation. 

Some of the oldest residents in the area were invited into the school to engage in various activities. 

The students taught the older people practical skills such as improving their computers skills, using social media, shopping online and cooking. The older people reciprocated by sharing their knowledge of local history and folklore with the next generation. 

Local Garda Sergeant Dean Kerins approached the local secondary school to see if they would be interested in helping to make Kells a better place for older people to live. Along with Stephen McKee, vice principal at the Eureka school, they devised the "Never Home Alone" programme.  

Imelda McHugh, one of the older participants from Moynalty, was "taught from scratch how to use a mobile phone, how to use YouTube, how to communicate basically with the outdoor world," said Sgt Kerins. 

Imelda has become particularly tech savvy. She said: "I follow the International Space Station that goes overhead 15 times a day I think."

Traditional roles of adults cooking for younger people were reversed as the student taught their elders how to cook some recipes.

One of the students Emma Gorman said: "We decided we would teach the older citizens how to cook instead of them teaching us."

Another student Nora Barry said she was surprised how much she enjoyed the experience of getting to know the senior citizens.

They cooked pasta Bolognese and a stir fry for the older people and "They didn't think they were going to enjoy it because it is not something they have ever had before and they were really surprised."

Michael Connell, who is wheelchair bound, has been very active in the GAA in Kells for his whole life. He enjoyed chatting about sport in years gone by with the students on his visits to the school. 

Michael said he would like to see 'Never Home Alone" expanded across Ireland. "I’m lucky here but there are an awful lot of people stuck in their homes. I can imagine what it would be like. It’s horrible." 

While one of the aims of the initiative is to combat loneliness, Eureka student Jessica Kennedy (Girl 3) says great bonds have been forged with the elderly.

"A project like this opens your eyes to the community and the problems around you and you can get involved and feel passionate about it," she told Prime Time Last year. 

"We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living memory. This is unchartered territory," was the stark message from then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as he addressed the nation on March 12th.

With that, the Eureka School and the local active retirement groups in Kells were closed. The first lockdown also pressed the pause button on the ‘Never Home Alone’ initiative.

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on daily life in Kells. Sgt Kerins says it has been very difficult for a lot of local people, particularly older people. 

"Michael Connell hasn’t been out of the house since March 10th due to Covid," said the Sgt Kerins.

He hopes he can get back out to GAA matches and the local Active Retirement Group in 2021.

The ‘Never Home Alone’ initiative has been of immense practical help to people who were isolated and home alone this year.

For Imelda McHugh, learning how to use a mobile phone and social media in 2019 could not have come at a better time ahead of her cocooning at home this year. 

Sgt Kerins said, "It has been a godsend for her that she can communicate and actually find out what is going out outside her house. That is her way of communicating with the outside world."

Lockdowns and restrictions have been particularly difficult on Imelda’s generation who lived without face-to-face human contact for much of 2020. 

 "Without that social media outlet, they would have been exceptionally lonely," said Sgt Kerins.

He also acknowledges that the pandemic has been difficult for the students at Eureka school.

"Certainly the young kids probably need the interaction with the older person as much as the older person needs the interaction with the younger person. "

Mr McKee said the first lockdown came as a "big shock" to the school community and "it’s been difficult for everyone."

But the experience of the ‘Never Home Alone’ has equipped them to deal with the challenges 2020 has thrown at them.

"It was a real eye opener for the girls working with the vulnerable and elderly people in the community, and seeing first hand how much joy it brought the elderly people.

 "And the young people learnt as much as the elderly people from the experience. It was a real coming together of generations in a really nice and positive way. And certainly it is something the girls have missed during the pandemic."

He said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of interaction and social connection between people. 

The Eureka Secondary School students have been recognised with a Garda National Youth Award for their initiative and Mr McKee believes a similar programme should be rolled out for transition year students across the country.

As news of Covid 19 vaccines reaches Kells, Mr McKee is optimistic. "Loneliness is a serious issue and it has really come to the fore during the pandemic. So we are looking forward to getting the programme back as soon as things get back to normal."