Although socially distanced bingo games were fun, they couldn’t take the place of one-on-one communication with loved ones and friends.
“I was hoping to find some ways to connect my residents to others during the pandemic,” said Horton, 61, the care center’s administrator. “They have been lonely.”
Then Horton and her team came up with an idea: post photos on the care center’s Facebook page of residents holding signs printed with their first names and asking, “Will you be my pen pal?”
“We hate that we are not able to have our normal visitors due to COVID-19 restrictions,” read a note at the top of the June 24 post. “So we at Phoenix Assisted Care would like to pass the time by writing our pen pals!”
People were advised to select the residents they wanted to correspond with, then mail letters with their first names on the envelopes to the care center.
Horton thought she would probably get enough response for each resident to have a couple of pen pals to write to while the center’s doors remained shut to outside visitors.
Instead, she was soon flooded with letters from people around the world, eager to become pen pals with one of Phoenix Assisted Care’s 100 residents.
In fact, so many letters were sent that Victorian Senior Care, the company that manages Phoenix Assisted Care and 13 other North Carolina care centers, decided to spread the love around. It is now running a pen-pal campaign featuring all 900-plus residents.
“We knew it would be a good way to boost everyone’s spirits, but we never dreamed we’d get this kind of response,” said Meredith Seals, chief operating officer for Victorian Senior Care.
Nearly 20,000 letters have come in — enough to keep every resident writing through the rest of 2020 and beyond.
Although most pen-pal volunteers select which senior they would like to correspond with, those who have no preference are matched with a resident who has similar interests, such as crossword puzzles, music or animals, Seals said.
“It might take a while, but everyone who sends a letter will get a response,” she said. “It’s been heartwarming to see so many letters come in and see the smiles on so many faces. The physical separation has been mentally straining on everyone, and this gives our residents something to look forward to.”
Local Boy Scouts and other community groups have pitched in to help sort and organize the letters before they are delivered to each senior’s room, Seals said.
“Everything that comes in is sanitized according to CDC guidelines,” she said. “We haven’t had any cases of covid-19 in any of our centers, and we’re working hard to keep it that way.”
“We now have maps up in our care centers so everyone can track where they’re getting their mail from,” Seals said. “Besides every state, we’ve heard from people in Australia, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Uganda, Singapore, Pakistan and Hong Kong.”
More than 60,000 people have also left comments on Victorian Senior Care’s Facebook posts.
“This is going to be so much fun,” wrote a woman from Minnesota. “I will do one letter and if I don’t get a response back, that’s OK. Just wanna make someone’s day knowing someone is thinking of them!”
“I have worked in many settings and know the importance of making these residents feel loved,” commented a nurse from Virginia. “How refreshing to see such a wonderful post. I will be sending my letters after I work this weekend.”
“I just wrote to Ken. I haven’t had a pen pal in years, so I am pretty excited,” wrote a man from Illinois.
When residents of the 14 care centers saw how much mail was arriving every afternoon, they couldn’t stop smiling, Seals said.
“Handwritten letters don’t happen so often anymore,” she said. “It’s such a simple thing, and yet so meaningful. It’s a way to bridge the gap between generations.”
For Sandra Stone, a resident at Red Springs Assisted Living in Robeson County, receiving more than 100 letters has helped her to realize she’s not alone, she said.
“I have really enjoyed reading about everyone and their lifestyles, and I’ve even received letters from college students,” she said. “One of my pen pals is only seven years old, and that just melts my heart. I feel truly blessed.”
Michael Stanley, who lives at the North Pointe of Archdale care center near Greensboro, said he has also received more than 100 letters, including one from a man who enclosed a picture of a mermaid he is planning to have tattooed on his arm.
“I’ve enjoyed being surprised like that and learning what other people think and know about things,” he said. “And getting letters from kids is also fun.”
The overwhelming response from thousands of strangers is proof that there is still goodness in the world, Seals said.
“To be able to write a letter and share your story and history with somebody else, then have that person share back, is an incredible thing,” she said. “Our seniors have a lot of knowledge to share. Even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, how wonderful that they now have dozens of pen pals to help them continue to do that.”