Letter Programs Find Write Way to Address Loneliness

According to 2020 statistics, nearly 8 million seniors in community settings were found to be socially isolated, more than a million severely socially isolated and even more strikingly, 43 percent of Americans over age 60 reported feeling lonely.

Jacob Cramer, the founder of Love for Our Elders, points to these statistics to explain why he’s on a mission to alleviate the growing loneliness epidemic facing seniors.

Since 2013, his program has mailed thousands of letters to seniors around the world with 50,000 volunteers helping out in 70 countries.

“There are virtual ways to connect, email and phone, but letter writing is really an intimate form of connecting with people,” says Lucy Solares-Steger who coordinates the Oregon Humanities’ “Dear Stranger” letter exchange program. The program was especially popular during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, especially with seniors.

The Dear Stranger program is one in which you write a letter not knowing who will receive it. You can choose to do so anonymously or not. You are matched with another letter writer and you’ll receive their introductory letter in the first round. You can then decide if you want to be “pen pals” and continue writing to each other or you might choose to write letters to others. You can write as many as you’d like.

Since 2014, hundreds have participated in the letter exchange and it has inspired similar projects in Nebraska, Sacramento, Tacoma and at a few universities. People of any age can participate and it takes place three times a year with a suggested prompt each time. The next deadline is the end of February and a letter will be received by about mid-March. February’s theme is “underground.” Organizers hope to make it even more accessible for people of all abilities moving forward.

“It has been a really impactful thing for senior folks who don’t have a lot of mobility and especially during the pandemic … some of them aren’t near family, don’t have family or their family can’t visit them, but they are still able to share things that are on their mind and their worries and have someone receive it and care,” Solares-Steger told Solace Cremation.

The program receives a wide variety of letters including some with elaborate art, decorated envelopes, from overseas classes learning English, from people who are incarcerated and many from transplanted Oregonians wanting to keep in touch with their former home.

“You can really be paired with anyone at all, even someone who has a super different life experience than you … people from all walks of life.” But though people’s backgrounds may be different, Solares-Steger works hard to make sure that she matches the tone and vulnerability of the letters which may include correspondence about their anxieties, secrets or memories that “go especially deep.”

There are many other nonprofit letter projects including the Gladys Love Project and Letters Against Isolation. Many programs work with senior facilities but also accept nominations from individuals. A few, like Lifting Letters, let you nominate yourself.

Whether your letter finds you a connection across the state or across the ocean, that piece of paper might just make the whole world seem a little smaller.

Whether you’d like to write a letter or card or like to nominate someone – yourself or someone else – to receive one, there are dozens of nonprofits with similar missions for people with cancer, hospitalized kids and the military. Each program will have its own guidelines, so check their websites for details.

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