The Power of the Written Word: Pen Pals for Older Adults

Letters can be a great means of breaking through social isolation.

Posted in , Oct 11, 2021

Senior citizen writing a letter; Getty Images

Positive and heartfelt words, even from those we don’t know, can open up a world of connection and help to quell loneliness. For older adults who are unable to get out and about, reading letters can be a means of battling the blues and establishing new relationships. The fact that connection is crucial has become all the more apparent as the issue of social isolation has been pushed to the forefront. It’s no secret that loneliness takes a toll and that older adults face particular challenges, which have been exacerbated by lockdowns.

The potential health effects of social isolation are serious. They range from higher rates of depression and anxiety to increased risk of dementia and premature death. So, it’s important for you as a caregiver to find creative ways to help your loved one stay connected with others. One way to broaden social connection is via letter writing. To that end, a number of organizations, from assisted living facilities to home care agencies, have initiated pen pal programs for older adults, some in partnership with school-age kids. A few examples:

  • Village Concepts, an assisted living provider in Washington state, launched a pen pal program at the start of Covid-19 restrictions to help its residents stay connected with the community. It issued a social media call to action to all of its local communities, especially encouraging kids who were at home due to school closures. The response, according to the company’s website, was “epic.”
  • The Meadows of Wadena, a retirement and assisted living facility in Minnesota, formed a letter writing program after its activities director spotted a post in another state asking for pen pals and wanted to try out the concept. “Our residents are very interested and can’t wait to get their letters,” Tami Mench, director of resident services/housing manager, told the Grand Forks Herald.
  • North Carolina’s Victorian Senior Care received such a huge outpouring of letters for its pen pal program that it issued an update on its website notifying letter writers of a slowdown in response times: “We have been overwhelmed with the amount of love and kindness we have received from all over the world and thankful for every bit of it. From sweet encouraging notes, letters about your families and pets, thoughtful gifts, snacks, activities and so much more. Our residents have received thousands of letters and are trying to get responses out as they can.”
  • In addition to combating social isolation among older adults through its in-home care services, Home Instead offers a pen pal program. The website enables letter writers to type their messages into an online form or to uploaded handwritten notes. Suggested topics include favorite hobbies, movies, book and interests. You can also ask the older adult to share a story, fact or opinion with you. Letters are screened for safety and security by a review team.

If you’d like to get your loved one involved in a pen pal program, or wish to write to an older adult yourself, consider contacting your community’s assisted living facilities, in-home care agencies or senior centers. If a facility has an activities director, you may want to start with that person to get a sense of what sort of interest there is. You may find one older adult who wants to receive letters, or several. If you get involved and enjoy the process, you may even want to recruit friends and family members to establish additional connections.

Facilities will likely screen letters, but it’s important to always keep safety and security in mind. Make sure, for instance, that your loved one doesn’t include in snail mail letters or on websites his or her full name or other personal or identifying information. This sort of information includes: mailing address, date of birth, social security number, internet passwords, financial information or travel plans Also make sure that your loved one never sends money or compromising photos to anyone. 

The simplest of actions, if sincere, can have great value. When someone puts thoughts and feelings into writing and reaches out to an older person, it can make a real difference. It could be the first step toward forging a meaningful relationship or at least making someone smile.

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