Penpal service offers comfort to lonely seniors

Ms Marleen Brooks visiting Ms Wanda Mills in the nursing home. Ms Mills had written to Ms Brooks asking for friendship and saying she was lonely and scared.
Ms Marleen Brooks visiting Ms Wanda Mills in the nursing home. Ms Mills had written to Ms Brooks asking for friendship and saying she was lonely and scared.PHOTO: JAMES BROOKS/WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON • This past spring, Ms Marleen Brooks, a 37-year-old property manager in the small town of Park Hills, Missouri, came home to find a handwritten letter from a 90-year-old woman she had never met.

It was just a few lines: "Would you consider to become my friend. I'm 90 years old - live alone and all my friends have passed away. I am so lonesome and scared. Please - I pray for someone."

As Ms Brooks read the letter, her eyes teared up. Her own grandmother, who had raised her, had died alone in a hospice, which still bothered her.

The letter-writer, Ms Wanda Mills, had left an address - a house across the street and a couple of doors down. "I didn't know anybody lived there," said Ms Brooks, who has lived on the street for a year and a half.

The next day, she and a friend brought cupcakes to Ms Mills. "She was excited that we came over there, and we sat and talked for about an hour," Ms Brooks recalled.

Ms Mills, who has trouble walking and uses oxygen, told her that she had not left her house in seven years and relies on caregivers who come daily. But they were not the same as having friends.

She had lived in the house for 51 years. Her husband and sister had died, as had one of her sons. Another son lived out of state. A third son lived next door but did not visit often, she told Ms Brooks.

Loneliness and isolation have been shown to have detrimental effects on health, leaving people more vulnerable to infection, cognitive decline and depression.

An American Association of Retired Persons survey found more than one-third of older Americans to be lonely.

Ms Brooks wondered how many others out there were living like Ms Mills. She took a picture of the letter and posted it on Facebook, urging people to make sure to check on their neighbours and inviting them to send letters to Ms Mills, and opened a post office box for her.

Then she had an idea: Why not invite people to write to more people than just Ms Mills? In late April, she started a Facebook group called Penpals for Seniors, offering to match participants with older people who want to correspond by mail.

In a little more than a month, around 6,000 people had responded - far more than she had older people for them to write to. "We're still actively trying to find seniors," she said, adding that she has posted fliers and sent letters to churches, senior centres, home health agencies and nursing homes to let them know about the service. "That's been the hardest part."

So far, around 500 letters have been exchanged. Members include a mail carrier in Ohio who had isolated seniors on her route. Ms Brooks said high school classmates that she had not heard from for years have contacted her. Employees at her local post office call her "Penpal Girl".

Ms Rosina Ragusa of Hawthorne, New Jersey, saw the service on Facebook and signed up after her own mother died in July.

"It just broke my heart because I thought, 'What if I hadn't been there for my mother?'" she said. "You just never know who needs a friend."

The act of writing a letter on a piece of paper has brought Ms Ragusa back to her childhood, when she had a pen pal in Japan.

"I love it, I love having to sit down and think about what I'm writing instead of the quick responses with a cellphone and a computer."

Ms Georgia Parker, 40, of Dittmer, Missouri, corresponds with a woman in her late 60s in Windsor, Canada. Her own mother died two years ago, but "as you go through life and things happen, I want to call my mother and I want to tell her about it. I can write to Faye and tell her," she said. "It's good to still have that connection with the older generation."

A couple of weeks ago, Ms Mills moved to a nursing home. Ms Brooks and her husband and sons visit regularly.

Ms Mills said hardly anyone had visited her at home in recent years. "Neighbours used to visit each other. "

In fact, when Ms Brooks initially showed up at her door in response to the letter, Ms Mills was surprised. "I needed friends," she said, adding, "I thought it was nice to want to help somebody."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Penpal service offers comfort to lonely seniors'. Subscribe