Early in the pandemic, two sisters out of Massachusetts, Shreya and Saffron Patel, started writing letters to self-isolating seniors.
The movement quickly caught fire and now includes roughly 2.5 thousand volunteers serving over 5,000 seniors – including some in Ahwatukee.
Letters are one way various local and other groups are helping Ahwatukee seniors who live alone combat isolation.
“We realized that without visitors or the ability to interact with the wider world, many senior citizens may be growing lonely,” the Patel sisters write on their website, Senors Against Isolation.
“Senior loneliness is a well-documented issue and has effects not only on seniors’ mental health but on their physical health.”
YOPAS, a local outreach program of the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA, provides support to local seniors in a number of ways, including check-in visits and calls, household assistance for things such as repairs or sorting mail, and transportation to medical appointments, shopping and errands.
Typically, the volunteer group would also host monthly social events and activities to “help our clients prevent isolation and loneliness and to keep them engaged in the community,” according to Mark Mansir, YOPAS director.
But given the current health risk that comes with socializing, these events are on hold.
Mansir notes that they are “only doing about 50 percent of the usual number of rides, as many medical offices are doing tele-med and because of the hesitancy of our seniors, the most at-risk group, to go out unless absolutely necessary.”
With the threat COVID-19 poses to the well- being of seniors, many have taken to self-isolation, inspiring the ongoing letter-writing movement.
Hawthorn Court in Ahwatukee, a senior living facility at 13822 S 46th Place, reports receiving letters from places all over the world.
“We have received hundreds of letters since the lockdown due to COVID-19. Every single resident has been handed at least a handful of cards and letters,” said Jillian Byers, lifestyle director at Hawthorn Court.
“The first letters and cards we received were right after Arizona went on shutdown – we received cards with no return addresses – they had well wishes, poems, drawings,” she said.
“In the last couple weeks, however, the cards and letters have increased due to some viral Facebook posts from other senior living communities asking for pen pals,” she explained.
Now, the facility also receives messages on their Facebook page asking for names and requests to send pen pal letters back and forth with one of their residents.
Hawthorn Court is a memory care community, so when the public reached out asking if they would be interested in pen pals, they explained that, “while our residents will always enjoy opening up letters and reading them, they may not necessarily be interested in replying.”
“We were pleasantly surprised, however, to have a few residents want to reply,” Byers said. “We are hoping to encourage a few more to reply to some letters we have received and hopefully spark some friendships.”
“We are doing our best to sit down with each resident interested in replying and we personally help them write out the return letters with a photo added in as well,” she added.
Hawthorn Court is limiting seniors to one pen pal for now to make it less confusing for them – though Byers said many cards and letters do not have return addresses.
“For some residents, they may believe the cards are from family and it just makes their day!” she said. “Some of our other residents who do understand that we are on lockdown, just think it is nice that people in our surrounding community and around the country are thinking about them and taking the time to send them letters.”
Byers suggests that anyone interested in sending a pen pal letter should “just write a letter as if to a friend.”
“Tell a little about yourself and where you are from,” she said. “Clearly write your name, return address and please mark the outside of the envelope with “pen-pal” somewhere so we know that this is not just a one-time letter.”
Liv Generations is another senior living facility in Ahwatukee that is interested in receiving pen pal letters from the community.
Nila Soliz, director of vibrant living, explained that their residents are currently working on a different project, where seniors give advice to students preparing to go back to school.
They include their name, age, graduation year and advice on a card, which is then photographed in their hands and uploaded to the Liv Generations website for students to view.
Soliz explains that they have about 100 seniors who would be interested in having a pen pal. Letters can be addressed to 15815 S. 50th St., 85048, and should include a return address so residents can write back and form an ongoing relationship with their pen pal. People also can post an online card at livgenerationsahwatukee.com.