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'Love to hear from you': Pen pal initiative brings joy to aged care residents amid lockdown

Letters and paintings from children to the elderly in nursing homes. Source: Lansing Zhang

Due to concerns over COVID-19, visits to aged care facilities have been halted or restricted across the country. As a result, one Sydney aged care facility has turned to a pen pal initiative to bridge the gap in communication between its elderly residents and the outside world.

Before the internet and social media began to dominate the way people communicate, being a pen pal was a popular and fun way to forge friendships with complete strangers. 

It is an exercise where two people establish a link by writing letters and mailing them to each other.

It’s a particularly fitting form of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen lockdowns affect most sectors in Australia.

Due to the risks that the virus presents for elderly people, visits to aged care facilities have been stopped or tightened across the country.

Seeing the detrimental effects that restrictions are having on residents, staff at the Huntingdon Gardens Aged Care facility in Sydney's south, decided to act.  

Its director Feng Chen told SBS Mandarin as social outings and activities at the facility have been limited, a pen pal initiative was introduced to provide elderly residents with an avenue to contact the outside world during tough times.  

“There is a group that used to visit our residents on weekends, [but] they can't come because of the restrictions. Then they came up with the idea of making pen pals with the elderly," he said.

“We have a team responsible for sending and receiving the letters for the elderly. They can do something to relieve depression.” 


 

Below is an exchange between a 7-year-old child and a 92-year-old nursing home resident, as part of the initiative:

Dear friend, I’m Tom. I‘m seven years old. How are you going? What is your name? We just want you to know that we are thinking of you and hope you have a delightful day!

Hi my lovely friend, 'GREAT' to get your 'NEW' letter... You know I'm an old lady, but that's OK. I'm 92.


 

Staff member Lansing Zhang runs the initiative and said over a period of just two weeks, the number of nursing homes participating in the pen pal activity has grown from three to seven facilities. 

"I made a simple poster and then posted it on social media immediately after this idea came into my mind,” she said. 

“Many interested friends helped me share it and let more people know about this pen pal initiative. Now more than 30 families are already involved." 

養老院筆友活動
A 92-year-old man's reply to a child's letter.
Lansing Zhang

Ms Zhang’s initial plan was to encourage children to write letters to residents.

"The world has been seriously affected by COVID-19 this year and many people start to think about our way of life on this planet. It includes, for example, maybe we need to let our kids know ‘giving is living’ or ‘giving is more joyful and more meaningful than taking'. They need some practical experience to truly understand it.

“Speaking of giving, you don’t have to wait until you become very rich. It could be a letter, a handcraft, a greeting.”

Lansing Zhang

She said one of the original intentions of the initiative was to inspire children to write in English but soon found that the elderly residents who were willing to participate came from different cultural backgrounds, which English is not their first language.  

As a result, some parents and even grandparents have become involved in the initiative, and have gone about communicating to seniors in simplified and traditional Chinese. 

老人院筆友活動
Ma Yunying received a letter from his pen pal.
Lansing Zhang

Ms Zhang plans to introduce this activity to more multicultural communities. 

“Two elderly people who speak Japanese hope to participate. Fortunately, I found some friends in a Japanese community who are also very interested.” 

Mother Ellie and her two children, Nana, seven, and Anan, five, are taking part. 

"I once made pen pals when I was a student. Nowadays, children rarely write letters. I think it's a good thing to let them experience writing letters to someone,” Ellie said.  

“Besides that, they can also learn to care for the elderly." 

養老院筆友活動
A 99-year-old man's reply to a letter.
Lansing Zhang

Ellie said her two children are very interested in this activity and completed their first letters in half an hour. 

"My five-year-old boy likes to write, but he still doesn't know how to spell correctly. He just wrote it according to his own ideas, and then I helped to fix it, otherwise, the reader couldn't understand." 

Nana happily shared the contents of her first letter. 

"I wrote in the letter what my name is, I want to be your friend. I know that people of your age sometimes lack company, so I want to be your friend. I think they will be very happy when someone chats with them." 

養老院筆友活動
Seven-year-old girl Nana participates in the pen pal activity.
Ellie

Ma Yunying, an 88-year-old resident at the Huntingdon Gardens facility said she was “very excited” to receive a letter in Simplified Chinese from a 66-year-old woman. 

"She said her husband and her have been living in Australia for seven years. She is 66 this year, and I am 88. To me, she's still a kid.” 

養老院筆友活動
Five-year-old Anan participates in the pen pal activity.
Ellie

Speaking of the benefits that this activity has on the elderly residents, Ms Zhang believes: "For the elderly living in nursing homes, they may repeat their similar life every day. Suppose they suddenly receive a surprising letter and a stranger comes to ask 'Are you willing to be my friend?'. It might delight them." 

"Allowing the elderly to feel the care from society and helping the participants get the joy of giving, it is a way of nourishing each other.”

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