Sending Support: Battling Isolation, Seniors Find Comfort in Pen Pals

Some programs pair older adults with children, while others invite members of the community to submit uplifting and positive messages to nursing home residents.

Some programs pair older adults with children, while others invite members of the community to submit uplifting and positive messages to nursing home residents. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Senior centers, nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country have launched pen-pal programs to help older adults battle social isolation created by the coronavirus.

As the coronavirus spread toward New Hampshire and communities began advising residents to isolate at home, Rich Vanderweit began brainstorming.

Vanderweit, an activity aide at Sullivan County Health Care in Unity, N.H., was concerned about the effects that social isolation would have on the nursing and rehab facility’s 135 residents. It’s a community-driven home, he said, where visitors come to see one person and end up chatting at length with a dozen others—so when the facility went on lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, he worried that the seniors would feel abandoned.

“And the idea just came to me—a pen-pal program,” he said. “It just seemed like a really good way to bridge a gap, because like the rest of the country, we’re self-isolating right now. And what a lot of our folks grew up doing was writing letters and then waiting by the mailbox for a response.”

The program started simply, with letters going to and from the county-run facility and Summercrest Senior Living Community, a private home two hours away in Newport, New Hampshire. But after local media outlets reported on the program, Vanderweit opened it up to the community at large—and letters began pouring in.

“It went national. We are coast to coast now, getting letters from all over the United States,” Vanderweit said. “I opened up a letter today from South Carolina that said, ‘We read about your program in our local newspaper.’ It’s just wonderful.”

Similar programs have launched at nursing homes and residential facilities across the country as activity directors aim to keep seniors connected during widespread social isolation. A letter exchange in Madison, Connecticut pairs seniors with children, while programs in Pennsylvania and California ask families to send “encouraging and friendly notes, poems, drawing and stories to older adults in long-term care facilities or independent housing complexes. In Houston, residents of a retirement home posted a plea on Facebook for “pictures, letters and drawings from you or your kids” and were promptly inundated with mail.

“It is like Christmas morning every day here,” Becky Hudson, the Houston facility’s lifestyle director, said in a TV interview. “The morale here in our community is just extremely high, and it's all because of strangers around the world. And it’s beautiful.”

Research has found that older adults tend to have fewer social interactions and a smaller social network than younger adults, a gradual shift that occurs alongside major life changes, including retirement and the deaths of family members, friends and neighbors. Social isolation is linked to poor physical and mental health outcomes—a particular concern during the pandemic, as older adults are already more vulnerable to the virus, said Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the nonprofit American Federation for Aging Research.

“Important research has linked social isolation and loneliness to a range of poor outcomes in older adults from reduced neurocognitive, cardiovascular, and autoimmune health, to increased risk for depression, anxiety, and financial abuse,” she said. “We must remember that social isolation among older adults is a significant public health concern in its own right and should consider the creative ways in which we can stay connected while socially distancing.”

Pen-pal programs aim to fill that void. In Madison, Wisconsin, staff at the city’s senior center launched their letter-writing exchange as a way to keep both volunteers and older residents busy and connected after the facility closed to the public.

“At first we were making phone calls and doing wellness checks, trying to make sure our participants were OK,” said John Weichelt, the center’s volunteer coordinator. “And eventually we started saying, ‘We still have all these active volunteers.’ So we asked them if they’d like to write to some of these older, isolated folks that we knew were going to be more isolated because they can’t come to the senior center now.”

The program grew from there. Several area businesses encouraged their employees to write letters, and Weichelt contacted long-term care facilities in the area to see if their residents would like to join. Participants sign up by filling out a form, including a few sentences about themselves, which Weichelt uses to match each pair of pen pals. Everyone is asked to commit to writing letters—via snail mail, email or even social media—for at least three months, though the relationships can continue past that if both parties want them to. It’s the perfect way to reduce isolation during a pandemic where limited social contact is key, Weichelt said—but seniors can always benefit from forging new connections.

“Honestly, this might have been something that was needed even before the pandemic,” he said. “You need to interact with folks, and keep your brain functioning, and feel connected to people.”

In New Hampshire, residents at Sullivan County Health Care are thrilled with their newfound popularity. Some letters come addressed to specific people, but others—uplifting missives, stories and pictures sent to the facility as a whole—are shared with groups of residents, who work together to compose replies. Mail deliveries have become a daily highlight, Vanderweit said.

“It makes me think of the Great Depression, because the mail was a really big deal back then,” he said. “And we need that. We need to share heart-to-heart connections with each other, and with the world. If we don’t have that, it gets pretty lonely.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Medicaid Providers At The End Of The Line For Federal COVID Funding

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.