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Supporting our Elder Community: COVID-19 and the Fight Against Loneliness

By Saffron and Shreya Patel

September 14, 2020

Our grandmother lives in a bustling retirement community and, before COVID-19, she had a thriving social life. She often had visitors over to her apartment, loved to go to the gym with her friends, and took the bus to the supermarket every week. Because of her compromised immune system, when COVID-19 arose in March, her doctor told her that she needed to self-isolate. So, she stopped leaving her apartment and began calling her friends rather than seeing them in person, and following yoga routines on YouTube. While she kept busy, it was clear that she was getting lonely. Our grandmother is not alone. Since seniors with COVID-19 have higher hospitalization and mortality rates, many have been asked to quarantine. This pandemic has led to an abrupt increase in older people, some of whom would normally have active social lives, feeling isolated. For seniors who are less active, the pandemic has cut them off from their friends and family, putting them at greater risk of elder abuse.  

In April, our grandmother received a letter from her friend. We remember her showing us the letter on FaceTime and reading it out loud to us. Seeing her joy, we realized that there was something special about receiving a handwritten letter. It made her feel more connected and cared for in a way that a phone call couldn’t. We were also aware that many self-isolating older people do not have the same support system that our grandmother has. With these thoughts in mind, we decided to ask a few local nursing homes if we could write to their residents. It was clear that there was a need for something to help older people feel more connected because, within a week, 200 older people were eagerly waiting for their first letter. We wanted to write to all of them, but knew we couldn’t do it alone! So, we founded Letters Against Isolation and have been recruiting volunteers ever since. 

Over the past four months, we have been hard at work building Letters Against Isolation. Currently, we write to 6,000 senior citizens in 20 US states and 2 Canadian provinces. Our 3,000 volunteers have collectively written an astonishing 30,000 letters and cards filled with messages of love and hope. We have worked with 55 nursing homes, meals on wheels programs, and senior centers. We have even collaborated with the Illinois State Government to serve seniors who have been isolating in their homes.  

These letters are making a difference. One woman whom we write to compared the letters to love letters she received as a young woman. With reduced contact with her family, these letters made her feel loved and important. The activities director at one of our partner care-homes likes to hand letters out at meals. Since lunch and dinner used to be very social events, many of her residents had been feeling particularly lonely when eating alone in their rooms. She says that the letters are a different form of interaction, and bring them some happiness while keeping their minds sharp. We have also heard that one group of seniors whom we serve eagerly await the arrival of the mail truck each day since they know it is carrying lots of exciting letters and cards. In such a dark and difficult time, we are proud to be part of something that brings hope to so many. 

It is also important to note that many of our volunteers are older adults themselves. While they are not living in care facilities, they too are quarantining in their homes. Being separated from their friends, family, and routine has also been difficult for them. Our retired volunteers tell us that writing letters reminds them of the wider world, and helps them feel connected to it. The act of writing is also comforting. The activities director of a home we write to puts it best, “People write the letters they would like to receive”. We strive to build community and engage with our volunteers through our vibrant Facebook group and monthly virtual parties. Many of our older volunteers are active on these platforms and enjoy the social outlet that they offer.  

Loneliness and this pandemic are both issues that are here to stay. Because of this, we are committed to continuing Letters Against Isolation. It is clear that our work is impactful for both writers and recipients. To further the fight against loneliness, we have recently begun a new pilot program where older adults at nursing homes write letters to one another! We hope that the ability to make a new friend and the excitement of waiting for another letter helps the participants banish loneliness. 

The question of how to prevent loneliness remains unanswered. It existed long before the pandemic, and unfortunately, it will continue to exist afterward. One thing is clear – we need more of these efforts, specifically designed to bring love and connection to our older generations.  

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