Pen Pal Programs
With today’s fast-paced digital communications, filled with the instant gratification of emails and text messages, it’s easy to forget what an important role letters and physical mail once played in the life of an entire generation. The anticipation, the extra effort of going to the mailbox or post office, the surprise of a handwritten letter arriving, and the excitement of what could be inside, were all a part of life for many seniors.
Even today, when many seniors are computer-savvy, receiving a handwritten letter means so much more, especially as they age and have fewer family members, friends, and loved ones out in the world with which to connect. Knowing this, many senior living facilities are implementing pen pal programs to rekindle the tradition of the handwritten letter, reestablishing connections to the “outside world” for many seniors who miss the joy that comes with a delivered letter.
A common recent trend is pairing up seniors with younger local students to be pen pals. Since many of the children do not have living grandparents, they enjoy learning from the life lessons the seniors can offer. Seniors in turn often experience a new enthusiasm for life through the excitement of a younger person’s perspective, questions, and learning, as well as having something enjoyable to look forward to on a regular basis. In addition, students get to develop their writing skills, while seniors can keep their own communication skills sharp. Many of these programs culminate with a meeting between pen pals at the school or the residence at the end of the school year.
How to Start a Pen Pal Program
Starting up a pen pal program at a senior living community can be as simple as contacting a nearby schoolteacher. Setting up a new program typically involves coordinating volunteers from both sides of the process, both within the community and volunteers from the public. When starting up a pen pal program, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Encourage participants to begin by describing the type of correspondence they’d like to send and receive. A letter of introduction to be given to the new pen pal is also helpful to start the process.
- Keep participant safety in mind, and consider not including last names in the correspondence. Having a single recipient, like the director of resident activities or the schoolteacher, can help maintain some privacy, even though it is most likely unnecessary.
- Go over the types of topics that are encouraged and allowed, letting participants know that the letters may be read by others than the recipient (especially correspondence with school-age children). Again, these precautions are typically in place to help parents feel more secure about the program.
- Make a list of topics to discuss in your letters, including hobbies, interests, family, life experiences, interesting memories. Remember to ask questions in your letters to encourage your pen pal to join in the conversation.
Handwritten letters are a tangible way to share old memories and create new friendships. Just like letters of the past keep people connected through war, across oceans, over years, they can continue to engage multiple generations even in this tech-savvy age.