Pen pal programs have sprouted up around the world as schools and senior centers try to keep older adults connected and children occupied.
By Mihir Zaveri, April 10, 2020
Mike Boggs found himself staring out the window at his assisted living center in Sioux City, Iowa, wondering when the coronavirus pandemic would end and when he would be able to safely go outside again.
Mr. Boggs, 63, struggled with dementia. He missed his wife, who was no longer allowed to visit. When the center decided in late March to halt communal meals to protect its residents, he felt his world grow even smaller.
Days before in the same city, Lincoln Colling, 15, found out that his school, East High School, would close. There would be no more team sports and no more student council meetings. Boredom set in.
But in their isolation — and despite their five-decade age difference — Mr. Boggs and Lincoln have forged a new connection. They have become pen pals through an informal partnership between the assisted living center and the student council at Lincoln’s school aimed at connecting teenagers with older adults, a population that was at risk of being socially isolated even before the coronavirus outbreak forced them into further seclusion.
In recent weeks, similar programs have sprouted up in Australia and Europe, and across the United States — in Sioux City; Madison, Conn.; Clear Lake, Texas; and beyond — as schools, nursing homes, libraries and senior centers try to keep older adults connected and children occupied.
Mr. Boggs received his first letter from Lincoln the day that the center, Bickford Senior Living, ended communal dining. Lincoln wrote casually on a page of notebook paper about how team sports had been shut down, how he was running to stay in shape and how his basketball team won a city championship last year.
“It affected me pretty personally,” Mr. Boggs said in an interview. “I’ve never had a pen pal before. This is a first time for me. I think it’s a great idea to keep open communication with the kids while we’re isolated inside — to keep that open line going.”
Mr. Boggs wrote in a one-page response: “Remember to eat a lot of spinach like Popeye that will keep you strong.”
Lincoln said that getting a letter back from Mr. Boggs was “so cool.”
“I feel like I could do this for a very long time,” Lincoln said.
Older people tend to have fewer social connections, particularly as their physical and mental health declines, said Dawn Carr, a sociology professor at Florida State University who studies aging and health. They are less likely to have jobs and the casual relationships that come with those jobs, she said.
Social isolation and loneliness are linked to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, said Dr. Carr, who is also a faculty associate at the Pepper Institute for Aging and Public Policy. Because people over 60 — and especially those over 80 — are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, social-distancing measures strictly warn or prohibit people from interacting with them.
“They are less likely now than ever to have even the small interactions that they had in daily life,” Dr. Carr said.
The pen pal programs are trying to change that.
“It makes a connection between a younger person and an older person,” said Pat McCormick, 79, who received a letter at Bickford Senior Living from a student who wrote about cheerleading and an upcoming trip to Texas. “It’s interesting for me to hear what these young people are doing.”
A similar program in Warminster, Pa., sought volunteers to write one email a week about a personal hobby or a funny story that would then be passed along to someone living in a nursing home. (The program’s website now says it is “at capacity” and cannot take any more volunteers.) In March, a retirement community in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., put out a call on social media for letters from children “in an effort to stay connected to our community and help parents combat boredom with their little ones at home.”
Dr. Carr said that such programs would be more successful in helping older people who are isolated if they encouraged two-way communication — a “back and forth” — and created social bonds. She said that intergenerational communication could be particularly beneficial, fostering empathy and civic engagement.
“Maybe this terrible thing that’s happened to us can shed light on the importance of building programs that actually work,” she said.
Town officials in Madison, Conn., started a pen pal program after its senior center — which holds exercise classes and games during the day, among other services — shuttered in mid-March in response to the pandemic.
“You have two populations that are stuck at home, that are isolated,” said Heather Noblin, the center’s assistant director of senior services.
For about two weeks, Ms. Noblin has been matching older adults with children. She had made more than a dozen matches as of Thursday afternoon. The “letters” would be sent through email to keep from potentially exposing recipients to the coronavirus. She said interest in the program was growing.
“I think it’s definitely still bubbling,” she said.
Christina Acampora read about the program in a local newspaper on March 26. Her daughter, Lucia, 9, already had a pen pal with a peer in New Jersey. But the idea of corresponding with an older person intrigued them both.
“I think that it’s good for the seniors because they can’t have any visitors,” Lucia said.
Lucia was matched with LouAnne Castrilli, 65, who recently retired as an administrative assistant with Madison’s Youth and Family Services department.
“She told me the things that she likes and the things that she does,” Ms. Castrilli said. “She likes ballet, and things like that, and then she asked me a bunch of questions, like what is my favorite color, what do I do for fun. Then we got talking back and forth.”
The new pen pals have exchanged four emails so far. Ms. Castrilli said they were the highlight of her day. And as it turned out, she and Lucia have a lot in common. They both like walking on the beach. They both like scrapbooking. They share a favorite color, pink.
“Maybe when this is all over,” Ms. Castrilli said, “maybe we will get to meet each other, which will be kind of fun.”
Mihir Zaveri is a general assignment reporter on the Express Desk. He previously worked at The Houston Chronicle.