How to Start or Find Nursing Home Pen Pal Groups

Updated

Are you looking for a way to make a difference in the life of an older adult? Perhaps in the past, you felt called to visit nursing homes so that you could spread joy to the residents. However, since the recent pandemic, you may be more hesitant to visit such facilities because you are concerned about sharing germs while you spread joy.

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If you are looking for a way to reach out to older adults living in isolation, consider joining a pen pal group for nursing home residents. If a group doesn’t exist at your local facility, consider organizing one. We will give you the names and links to established national organizations. We will also give you ideas on organizing a pen pal group at a local facility.

What Programs or Organizations Offer Pen Pal Groups for Nursing Home Residents?

Katie Couric shared an Instagram post in 2020 that received a lot of attention. In her post, she shared information about a new pen pal program started at a nursing home in North Carolina. Residents of the facility were inundated with mail. As a result, more pen pal programs were organized across the country.

Here are some groups that facilitate pen pals for older adults.

Reachout America

While the primary goal of this organization is to send children with disabilities to summer camps, this program also has a page on their website dedicated to matching pen pals with interested parties.

If you are interested, visit the website and look through the forum. If you want to discuss a particular topic, create your own discussion board to find someone with similar interests.

Project Penpal

Project Penpal works with the staff of nursing homes to coordinate which residents would like to receive letters from volunteers. The volunteers are only given the name and page of their new pen pal, and the letters are mailed directly to the facilities. Seniors who are interested and able to respond are encouraged to do so. 

Visit the website and fill out the volunteer registration form if you are interested.

Ready to Care

If you are excited to send a message right now, you can do so with Ready to Care. This organization will send your electronic message to a senior who is given the opportunity to respond. If you wish to remain in contact with a specific senior, provide your email or mailing address. 

Hands-On Suburban Chicago

This organization fosters connections between seniors and elementary students. To become a volunteer for this organization, email the organizers listed at the bottom of this page.

Pen Pals for Life

This organization was started at the beginning of the recent pandemic. The mission of Pen Pals for Life is to connect “grand-friends” to those who are isolated at a senior living facility. 

The organization matches both adults and students with older adults. Participants are asked to fill out a form on the website.

Many local nursing homes and care facilities have started their own pen pal programs. Consider visiting the websites of the senior centers in your area to see if they have an organized pen pal program for their residents. 

You may also consider calling your local nursing home to see if the staff can pair you with someone who would appreciate receiving mail. 

Remember, some of the residents at senior homes are utterly alone in the world. A kind word from you may make a world of difference to a lonely, isolated person. 

Steps for Starting Your Own Pen Pal Group for Nursing Home Residents

Do you work at a nursing home facility or have a heart for senior care? If so, you might be interested in organizing a pen pal exchange. Here are some suggestions on how to start a pen pal group.

1. Create a list of residents that would be interested in receiving mail

How many seniors in your organization would benefit from receiving mail? Out of those, who would be able to write back to the volunteer? While some volunteers would be happy to write to senior citizens who are unable to write back, others may lose interest in a one-sided conversation. 

Count the number of participants to help you determine the minimum number of volunteers you will need to get the program started. 

2. Discuss the logistics with the staff at the senior care facility

While a pen pal program doesn’t sound complicated to arrange, there are issues to consider. For example, will participants email each other or exchange snail mail?

If they do email, do the residents have their own computers or email addresses? Do they know how to use a computer and access their email? Does the facility have enough computers for residents to use to communicate with their pen pals? 

If you choose to use snail mail for your pen pal program, will the residents need assistance writing the letters and addressing the envelopes? Are there enough staff members to help with this weekly task? Do you have stationery available for the residents? Who will pay for the cost of the stamps? If you are seeking volunteers in your local community, will you allow participants to drop off the mail in person or visit their senior pen pal?

How will you handle matters of security and privacy? For example, will you review the residents’ letters to ensure there’s no inappropriate content or requests?

3. Share your pen pal ideas with members of the community

Once you have figured out how to run your pen pal program, you need to find volunteers to write letters. Consider talking with local volunteer organizations, such as a rotary club or other civic organization. Discuss your program with church groups. Reach out to scout leaders or area teachers.

Ask interested volunteers to fill out a form that addresses issues of availability, interests, and hobbies. You might be able to use this information to match the volunteers with their senior pals. Set clear expectations on how often the volunteers should write to their buddies. 

4. Match the pals

Share the senior’s contact information with the volunteers, along with any suggestions you have about what information they should (and should not) include in their letters. Remind the volunteers that they might not receive a letter back from the senior, but they should still try to communicate weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. 

5. Consider working with an established organization

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Unless you are only interested in local volunteers, you might register the interested seniors with an already established organization. While you will still have to assist seniors with the receipt and sending of letters, you won’t be on your own in finding volunteers for the program.

What to Write in a Letter to a Nursing Home Resident

Have you been assigned a pen pal, but you aren’t sure what to write in your first letter? Try not to overthink it. You don’t have to be a perfect writer or share the most exciting stories to brighten someone’s day. In fact, don’t fret over spelling or grammar – even if you are paired with a retired English teacher.

Here are some other ideas of what to write in a letter to a nursing home resident.

Introduce yourself

Give some general information about yourself. Include details such as where you were born, what you do for a living, and general information about your immediate family. People often bond over a shared love of animals, so you might tell your pen pal about your pets.

Ask questions

Your pen pal might also be nervous about beginning this relationship. Ask them general questions about their lives, such as what they did for a living or how many children they have. 

Try not to inundate them with questions in the first letter. Instead, save some of your questions until a later correspondence. 

Share details about a hobby

People sometimes bond over hobbies. So consider the things you enjoy, and write about them in your letter. In fact, the organization may have paired you with a particular senior because of your shared hobbies, beliefs, or interests. 

For example:

  • Write about the tomato plants you recently planted in your garden. Discuss the varieties and how many you planted. 
  • Tell your pen pal the books you have been reading. Include a shortlist of your favorite books and authors.
  • Describe a trip to your favorite national park. Include photos of the beautiful scenery.
  • Share details about a craft project you recently completed. 
  • Write about what you learned in a recent Bible study.
  • Tell your pen pal what happened in the most recent football game. 

Ask for advice

Remember not to treat older adults like children. Your pen pal probably had a lot of life experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice once you get to know your pen pal. 

The advice can be about your shared interest or hobby. (What kind of Roma tomato plants work best in our area? Since I am a new mystery reader, can you recommend a series?)

Or, you might ask for advice more personal in nature. (How did you handle becoming an empty nester? How do you stay positive during challenging times?)

Share a favorite quote

Are you at a loss over what to share next in your letter? Consider sharing a favorite inspirational quote or a joke with your pen pal. 

Stay positive

One of the goals of having a senior pen pal is to spread cheer. So while you don’t need to be annoyingly cheerful and optimistic, it would be best if you avoided complaining about your situation.

Make a Difference in the Life of a Senior

We hope we have inspired you to participate in a senior pen pal program. Once you see what a difference you can make in the life of a senior, you might be inspired to complete other acts of service.

For example, some people with flexible schedules deliver meals to seniors who are shut-in at home. Others donate items to senior living facilities. In addition, you might consider going Christmas caroling or sharing your musical talent at a local nursing home.

You don’t have to have any specific talents or gifts to make a difference in the life of a senior. You simply need to show you care.

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