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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.