As pandemic health risks dominated 2020, the lives of older adults changed. Many were compelled to spend more time at home alone or with limited family. Their daily routines, social interactions, and sometimes independence, were reduced.
The isolation and change in activity are taking a toll. An October report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 1 in 4 older adults older than 65 is experiencing anxiety and depression compared to 1 in 10 in 2018.
A new project, organized by Longmont resident Ann Marie Andrews, a health sciences teacher for Destinations Career Academy of Colorado, could provide relief. She’s developed a program that links her high school students with older adults through intergenerational letter writing. She calls the program Operation Pen Pal.
The project is expected to last through May, if not longer. It is part of the community service component of the Health Occupation Students of America, a career technical student organization that Andrews runs at the school.
Andrews said her motivation stemmed from concern about isolation in each of the age groups. “I’m worried for our senior citizens because I feel like they’re so isolated. I’m with kids, and I’m concerned about them, too,” she said.
There are about 15 senior/student pen pal pairs. Andrews hopes students will gain knowledge from their pen pals’ experiences, and older adults will find a new outlet for engagement.
“If these students can learn from them, what a great win-win situation,” she said.
Because Andrews’ students learn remotely and are at disbursed locations, it’s not likely the pairs will ever meet face to face, even once COVID-related restrictions are lifted.
Helping Andrews in her effort is her neighbor Diane Bergstrom, who works as a private caregiver for seniors. When she heard about Operation Pen Pal, she connected Andrews with multiple pen pal candidates. They weren’t Bergstrom’s clients; they were people she knew from her life.
Seniors who are part of the project have led full and interesting lives that should give them a range of stores to share, Bergstrom said.
One pen pal is a 93-year old volunteer emeritus at Rocky Mountain National Park. “She’s helped thousands of people, lived several places abroad, and grew up in Virginia in the Jim Crow era. She is a walking book of history for a high school student to connect with,” Bergstrom said.
Another pen pal enjoyed a 32-year career as a teacher and, in retirement years, is managing volunteers who spend month-long stints as California lighthouse keepers. A pair of others were meteorologists who were among the first women hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.
While students may benefit from their pen pals’ experiences, the seniors also may reap the program’s rewards, Bergstrom said. One person Bergstrom knew who participated in a similar activity at the University of Colorado Boulder “found that it was refreshing to connect with enthusiastic young adults, and it made her aware of their hopes and fears regarding the future,” she said.
Bergstrom also said she was seeing increased depression and frustration levels in isolated older adults and said she was thrilled to learn of Andrews’ project. The participants she’s engaged are excited, though the program is still in its earliest stages.
“One senior has already heard from their student and loved her eagerness,” she said.
That kind of enthusiasm bodes well for participants as the project progresses.
”There are just a lot of incredible stories. That the kids get to write to these people and learn about them. And that these people are willing to share, it’s awesome,” Andrews said.