Have you ever been a Pen Pal? I realize in today’s digital age this could probably take on a whole new meaning. Today I want to talk about the good old days when people actually wrote letters and sent cards (real paper cards, not e-greetings or Facebook birthday wishes). My job gives me ample opportunities to talk with elders and learn about their lives before their health declined and their ability to be independent “forced” them into a nursing home. There is a common refrain I hear: “I wish my family would visit more often.”
Having visited family members in nursing homes, I know they’re not the most exciting places to spend time. And depending upon the condition of the person, it may be emotionally challenging to visit with them.
Aunt Dot had been my favorite aunt growing up. She and Uncle Warren lived next door and had no kids of their own, so my brother and I had surrogate parents in them. As a teenager, I spent many summer nights on the porch swing with Aunt Dot, confiding things to her that I would never tell anyone else. Aunt Dot was a good listener, but she was better known as a talker. Sometimes it was hard to get a word in edgewise. But those conversations live on in my heart and mind as some of my fondest memories.
So, when she went into a nursing home (May 18, 1998, in fact) following a couple of diabetic strokes, she had “expressive aphasia”. She could not speak or show emotion. We were never sure if she knew we were present, or if she heard/understood what we were saying. She just stared off into the corner of the ceiling, looking at something … or nothing … we could never know. Not being able to have a conversation with my Aunt Dot became more than I could bear … and so I stopped visiting her in the nursing home.
But I never stopped thinking about her or loving her. I used to send flowers or treats for her with Uncle Warren (and he was kind enough to take them). I’m sure he always told her they were from me. And if she understood, I’m sure it made her happy even if I wasn’t there in person. That brings me back to the title of today’s blog.
When I was in elementary school, we were encouraged to write to other children through the school’s pen pal program. Today there are letter drives to military men and women to let them know we’re thinking about and supporting them. So I got to thinking about the elders in residence in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and even our own older relatives and friends. This week, one woman told me that her children live 4 hours away and it’s difficult for them to come to see her. She became tearful when telling me about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren she only sees in pictures. And I wished I could call her family and ask them to send cards, letters, recorded messages, videos or pictures with more frequency. Another lady shared her joy of receiving 25 birthday cards last week from family and friends. She had them in a neat stack on her bedside table; she said she’s been looking through them every day!
So, today’s blog is not about making plans or having conversations. Rather, it’s about recognizing the importance of human interaction whether it’s in person, via social media, or by being a “sort of” pen pal. I encourage everyone reading this to take 15-20 minutes to write out some cards or letters and drop them off at your local nursing home. (If you address them to the attention of the Social Worker, s/he will know who needs the messages the most.) In order to protect elders from potential scams and abuse, this can’t be a true Pen Pal project (with the exchange of addresses). But receiving a card or letter from someone with an uplifting or encouraging message may be just what the elder needs.
Caring Choices is all about human interaction. While the conversations we encourage are important, we know that relationships are the driving force in the outcome of many decisions. Take time to nurture your relationships; you never know when they will end.
(c) 2014 Caring Choices