The pandemic has been tough on seniors. These students started a pen pal program to keep them company
It’s no surprise that the pandemic and its restrictions have taken their toll on seniors in long-term care (LTC) facilities and nursing homes. Many have had to live in isolation due to the confinement measures, unable to receive visits from friends and family members.
Such was the case for Gail Wilson, 76, who moved into the Chelsey Park retirement home in London, Ont., days before a pandemic was declared and everything was shut down.
« I came on Tuesday and the virus hit at the weekend so I couldn’t see my family, my son couldn’t visit me and I was locked in my room for three months. It was rather unpleasant, » she said. adding that she also contracted COVID in her first wave.
Samantha Keow, a student at Western University, wanted to do something to support the senior population in these difficult times. She started the Across Generations pen pal program, in which students and residents of nursing and long-term care homes are paired up and exchange handwritten letters once a month.
« Our main goal was just to put those groups, our senior population, back in people’s minds, especially at a time when they were really disadvantaged by the pandemic, » Keow said.
« Just ask how we can help and what we can do as future leaders to make sure we care for the people around us, even if we can’t see them. »
Inspiration and mutual interests
Keow came up with the idea while volunteering at a nursing home when she was in high school, where her primary role was to talk to residents and keep them company. Keow realized how much residents relied on social interactions and something as simple as someone asking how their day was, she said.
Keow correspondent Carol Burke, 72, also lives in Chelsey Park. She says she always looks forward to Keow’s letters and is so inspired by her.
« Oh, I love that, she’s very interesting, » Burke said. « One thing about it is that we don’t get them often enough, but when I do, I really like it. I read it over and over again. »
« It’s been really nice talking to Carol because I’ve never really had a grandmother figure in my life because there was a language barrier between me and my grandparents, » Keow said. « Having someone treat me like his grandson was really sweet and something I had never experienced before, so this bond is definitely a new experience, and one that stole my heart. »
The pandemic really infuriated Burke because she’s a people person who likes to talk to others but couldn’t for about three months, she said.
Burke and Keow found they shared a mutual love for arts and crafts and plan to have their first in-person meeting in September for a cup of coffee.
« She is [Keow] a very good entertainer, which I’m not but that would be a cool thing to do, she just likes to have fun and that’s me, » Burke said.
Wilson also learned a lot from his correspondent, Rose, who tells him all about her Chinese culture. Rose plays guitar and even sends her songs dedicated to Wilson. The two also share a passion for travel, which Wilson said she did a lot before she had a stroke a few years ago.
Student volunteer Mariam Park has been exchanging letters with her pen pal for about two years now, and she’s happy to be able to be a pillar of emotional support, while also finding a new friend.
« I believe that the small happiness in life is what makes life worth living and being isolated in a small space is not easy and can be mentally challenging. I thought if I could provide that to seniors with a simple letter would brighten their day and give the both of us something to look forward to each month, and I love putting a smile on my pen pal’s face, » she said.
She’s always had a hard time opening up to strangers, but connecting with her pen pal came so easily, Park said. Her pen pal also gives her lots of travel and life advice and the two plan to arrange an in-person meeting soon, she said.
« We created a very special friendship even though the age gap is so big. She just feels like a really good friend that I could talk to about my life issues, » she said.
« I was also isolated in my room and it was an online school, so it was difficult for me to make friends. The exchange of letters with my pen pal also helped me overcome my loneliness and helped me helped overcome some obstacles knowing I could talk to her.”
Keow plans to expand the organization to homes in other parts of Ontario and even expand Across Generations’ services to facilities other than LTC and retirement homes, because she says it’s not It’s not just the elderly who need this emotional support.