Letters via Love For Our Elders Tell Thousands: You Are Not Alone

In college, Jacob Cramer volunteered at suburban nursing homes east of Cleveland, and soon found he was the only frequent visitor to some residents. His desire to remedy loneliness and his fascination with the handwritten letter pen on old mesh paper: he created Love For Our Elders, which advertised on the internet the possibility of sending letters to people in retirement homes.

Today, the organization, headquartered in its Yale dormitory, has 13 volunteers who connect 60,000 volunteer letter writers from more than 70 countries with seniors around the world. The organization has sent approximately 250,000 letters since 2013 and promotes February 26 as National Senior Letter-to-the-Elder Day.

Why we wrote this

The elderly are among the most isolated during the pandemic. Online tools for staying in touch often leave them behind. A group is using an old-fashioned method to keep them company from a safe social distance.

LaVonne Birge, 90 and isolated in her retirement home in Omaha, Nebraska, received a basket of 500 letters through the organization last Thanksgiving, filling her small room with greetings, stories and voices. Many people wrote that they were praying for her. One woman described an ongoing battle to defend her geraniums from the neighborhood opossum. The underlying message in all the letters was the same: Mrs. Birge was not alone.

The experience changed her perspective: “She says this absolutely, 100% restored her faith in humanity,” says her granddaughter Beth Swierczek.

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Beth Swierczek remembers her granddaughter’s long afternoons when she and her grandmother, LaVonne Birge, sat on the couch opening the letters Mrs. Birge received from distant relatives, friends and pen pals. As they passed the letters, they smiled and laughed.

Those days seemed a long way from the last Thanksgiving. Ms Birge, who is over 90, sat alone in her retirement home in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a typical pandemic day: the nursing home was locked and Ms. Birge was isolated.

Then came a knock at the door. It was Mrs. Swierczek and her daughter, Emily, allowed in briefly because they are family. They carried a wicker basket stuffed with letters, about 500 of them addressed to Mrs. Birge.

Why we wrote this

The elderly are among the most isolated during the pandemic. Online tools for staying in touch often leave them behind. A group is using an old-fashioned method to keep them company from a safe social distance.

The coronavirus has created what AARP has dubbed “an epidemic of loneliness” among older adults, who have often found themselves quarantined and isolated.

However, thousands of volunteers around the world – connected through the organization Love For Our Elders – responded with a simple but powerful gesture: writing a letter.

Intrigued at first, Mrs. Birge opened envelope after envelope, postmarked from the United States and abroad. The small room filled with greetings, stories and voices.

Many people wrote that they were praying for her. One woman described an ongoing battle to defend her geraniums from the neighborhood opossum. Someone from Scotland sent a seed which is a symbol of good fortune.

The underlying message in all the letters was the same. Mrs. Birge was not alone.

Courtesy of Beth Swierczek

LaVonne Birge holds a basket of letters delivered on her last Thanksgiving to her Omaha, Nebraska, nursing home by her great-granddaughter Emily Swierczek (right).

A grandfather’s legacy

It’s a bit surprising that the headquarters of the operation that sends thousands of letters to hundreds of seniors around the world is in the Yale dormitory of Love For Our Elders founder Jacob Cramer. What is more surprising is that he started the operation when he was a high school student.

“It makes me really happy to help other people, and I just wanted to do something that would hopefully help people smile,” he says.

Love For Our Elders, which Mr. Cramer leads with 13 other volunteers, many of them young people, connects some 60,000 volunteer letter writers from more than 70 countries with older people around the world who need a boost. inch.

Love For Our Elders volunteers have sent approximately 250,000 letters since 2013 and promote February 26 as National Elder Letter Day.

The idea that gave birth to Love For Our Elders began with Mr. Cramer’s grandfather, Marvin “Marv” Cramer. As a child, Jacob Cramer was with his grandparents on all Jewish holidays and nearly every weekend in between.

He credits his grandfather for teaching him values ​​such as gemilout hasadimHebrew for “acts of love and kindness”; tikkun olam, “fix the world”; and a firm handshake.

After his grandfather died in 2010, Mr. Cramer wanted to live those values, so he started volunteering at assisted living facilities in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland where he lives.

As he spent more time in nursing homes, he began to realize that he was the only frequent visitor to some residents.

“It made me really uncomfortable, and I think when you’re uncomfortable, you want to do something to change it,” Cramer says.

So he did.

A post office box and a pandemic

A digital native raised in the age of texting and email, Mr. Cramer has always been fascinated by actual handwritten letters. In 2013, he combined the ancient art of pen on paper with new technology, announcing on the internet the possibility of handwriting letters to people in nursing homes.

He took off. Within a year, he needed to purchase a post office box to handle all the letters he processed and delivered.

When the pandemic hit, many older people needed a connection to the outside world more than ever, but at the same time there was a “huge increase” in the number of people who wanted to write, says Mr Cramer .

“Being able to make a difference from home is a great feeling because not only are you helping people feel loved, but you also don’t have to get up off the couch…or risk spreading the virus,” says -he.

The Loyola University of Maryland Organization Chapter displays some maps created at its December meeting.

Phoebe Clark, a psychology student at Loyola University in Maryland, is one of these new pandemic volunteers.

Living with her parents after her university was shut down by the pandemic, she witnessed her own grandfather’s struggles with dementia.

“My grandfather had mentioned that he felt forgotten, and it bothered me when I came back [to school]says Ms. Clark, who joined a Love For Our Elders chapter on campus.

While older adults may have become more isolated during the pandemic, their life experiences and perspective make them more resilient than most young people, says Michiko Iwasaki, a psychologist specializing in older adults at Loyola University of Maryland who advises the college’s Love For Our Elders club. Yet, she adds, there is no substitute for human connection.

“Humans are very social animals,” says Dr. Iwasaki.

Love For Our Elders has adapted to increase its human connections. He collected generic letters and sent them in bundles to be distributed in nursing homes. Last year, the organization switched to personalized letters. It features individual seniors for a month on its website. But with each recipient now averaging over 300 letters, the organization is trying to feature more nominees each month to “spread the love.”

faith in humanity

Lisa Campbell and Lance Lugar know better than anyone the value of the written word. The two met and struck up a friendship while poring over historical documents at the University of Pittsburgh Library Archives where they worked. When Mrs Campbell moved a decade ago, the two kept in touch, often by post.

“Before we had a computer and could roll everything back, there was a lot of emphasis on thinking about your message,” says Love For Our Elders letter writer Ms. Campbell.

Dr. Lugar, Ph.D. in paleobiology, says he is not alone. He has friends around the world he keeps in touch with, but the pandemic has made it harder to see them, and he recently needed to use a wheelchair he calls ‘the battleship’.

Mrs. Campbell decided he was a perfect candidate for Love For Our Elders. It was featured on the website in December, and soon Mrs. Campbell showed up on her doorstep with hundreds of letters.

People write about all sorts of things, although Love For Our Elders asks writers to avoid anything political or controversial, and many focus on common experiences or online biography interest. Dr. Lugar laughs as he describes a letter covered in dinosaur stickers, a nod to his background in paleontology.

Back in Omaha, Ms. Birge still has a lot of letters to read, but the experience has already changed her perspective: “She says this absolutely, 100% has restored her faith in humanity,” Ms. Swierczek says of of his grandmother.

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