Pen Pals Help Keep Seniors in Long-Term Homes Engaged Through Pandemic

pen pal service

Two Hamilton, Ont., students started a program to connect seniors in local retirement and care homes as pen pals with members of their communities. Photo: Arman Zhenikeyev/Getty Images

The pandemic has inspired people to find creative ways of staying connected while they physically distance. Many have turned to high-tech means from Zoom conference happy hours to visiting each other’s virtual video game neighbourhoods. Now, even pen pals are taking letter-writing digital.

The Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative, which started soon after the COVID-19 lockdown in March, connects seniors living in long-term and retirement homes with letter writers in their community. For founders and graduates of Hamilton’s McMaster University, Charmaine Holland and Aliza Prodaniuk, it was a way to promote safe social engagement among a population that became increasingly hands-off as the pandemic progressed.

“We wanted to ease the feelings of isolation,” Prodaniuk told CBC News. “It’s been really exciting and awesome to see the positive impact it’s been making in the community but also in the care homes.”

Pen Pal Initiative
Coordinators Aliza Prodaniuk (left) and Charmaine Holland promoting their pen pal service initiative and Hugh Purvis (middle), a resident of Maple Park Lodge in Fort Erie, Ont. holding one of the letters he received from the program. Photo: Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative/Facebook


So far, 30 residences — mostly in and around the Hamilton area, but as far away as Alberta — have joined the network. And the pair receive as many as 30 letters of correspondence a day.

Everything is facilitated via email, understanding that sending and receiving mail could be a roadblock — especially for seniors in homes where extra precaution had to be taken to protect them from exposure to the novel coronavirus. Prodaniuk, a professional writer, formats the letters coming from the community and, every two weeks, sends them on to homes for delivery to residents. She also directs replies back to community pen pals on behalf of residents..

Holland, an aspiring geriatric doctor, handles the network’s administration. She says that her and Prodaniuk are buoyed by reports from facility staff that residents read and re-read the letters they receive.

“We’re not just making a difference at one point in time, we’re giving them a true connection,” she said.

The pair are looking to make the team a threesome, with someone to exclusively handle social media as they expand the initiative and work towards getting non-profit status.

For more information, visit the Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative Facebook page or email [email protected].