Hello LAI Community! This is volunteer coordinator Ellen with a guest column written on behalf of your Leadership Team. We’ve received lots of questions lately about what to write (and what not to write)...so for our new volunteers...and for our veteran's volunteers who may be seeking fresh ideas...here’s my perspective as someone who worked for 26 years in geriatric health care.
As the pandemic eases and many of us have the chance to resume some normalcy in our lives, some of you are likely planning much-needed vacations and of course, you want to share your excitement with others. Please be aware that hearing about an upcoming cruise, a hiking adventure or a trip to Disneyworld may elicit feelings of sadness in seniors who can no longer participate in such adventures.
Imagine yourself at 90+ years old, using a wheelchair or walker due to physical limitations, having a memory that’s not as sharp as it once was, and no longer living in your own home. You may need assistance with dressing and personal care, you can’t choose the days you shower (and trust me it is not every day) and your food choices are limited. What topics would you enjoy reading about if a total stranger decided to send you a letter of cheer?
It’s great to ask questions...the senior may not be able to answer you, but you will encourage them to put on their thinking cap in a non-threatening way (since there are no wrong answers!) Try these ideas:
ANIMALS: Tell the senior about your pets and ask if their family had any pets when they were growing up. Mention your favorite animal or share a fun fact (giraffes have the highest blood pressure of any animal, zebras are white with black stripes, pigeons can recognize human faces). Enclosing a photo of your non-human family members is sure to elicit a smile!
COLORS: What’s your favorite yellow thing, the sun or a banana? Did you always reach for the blue crayon when you were a kid? What do you love about the color green? Everyone has a favorite color, but why does it appeal to you?
LOCATION: Do you live in the same city/state/province where you were born or have you moved around? Have you ever visited the location where the senior now resides? Take a moment to research an interesting fact about their current area (“I understand it rains a lot in Seattle” or “I’ve read that Florida is really humid”).
LOOK OUT THE WINDOW: Describe what you see...is the sky bluish or grayish? Are people wearing shorts or carrying umbrellas? Do you see trees and flowers and birds or do you see skyscrapers and lots of traffic? Ask the senior to look outside their window...perhaps they see some of the same things!
MAKE ’EM LAUGH: I review the work of our amazing student volunteers every day and they find the most wonderful, positive quotes to share, which are readily available via a basic Internet search. You can also look for simple riddles or dad jokes... clean one-liners which will amuse the senior and perhaps give them something to share with their caregivers. I’ve spent hours scouring the Internet and have hundreds of jokes...drop me an e-mail if you’d like me to share some of my favorites!
This list is far from exhaustive but hopefully has provided some basic starting points. Since LAI prides itself on being an all-inclusive organization, kindly refrain from discussing politics or religion, since you don’t know about the belief systems of the recipients of your correspondence. Obviously, if you correspond regularly with a pen-pal whom you have gotten to know, there is more latitude in what you share in your letters.
We do have a document on our website outlining suggestions for writing to seniors who reside in different types of care facilities and which explains the spreadsheet color-coding, it may be accessed here: https://www.lettersagainstisolation.com/post/spreadsheet-color-coding-categories
Finally, please consider sending a note of thanks to the staff! Working in long-term care is difficult, both physically and mentally, and the past year has provided more challenges than anyone ever could have imagined.
Thanks for reading this, thanks for writing to seniors and for spreading joy to those who need it most! You can reach me with any questions, comments or ideas at: firstname.lastname@example.org