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KNAU and Arizona News

Prescott Student Turns To Writing To Help Seniors Cope With Isolation

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Courtesy Erin Markham
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For seniors in long-term care facilities, loneliness was a problem long before the threat of COVID-19. But the pandemic lockdowns completely cut them off from outside social interaction — to the point where health experts say it’s endangering their mental well-being. 

Now, a nursing student at Yavapai College is working to help seniors cope with isolation from afar. Erin Markham, a former elder caregiver, started a local chapter of the Love for Our Elders Club, an organization that sends letters to seniors in long-term care facilities nationwide. 

Last semester, Markham’s chapter sent out more than 500 letters. She spoke with KNAU about the power of conversation with an already-isolated population:

Angela Gervasi: As this pandemic was unfolding, and we got our respective stay at home orders, did you find yourself thinking at all about seniors? Did that cross your mind at all?

Erin Markham: I was so worried. All of the nursing homes closed down immediately. 

It was the only thing that I could do was start the Love For Our Elders Club.

They're just a nonprofit foundation, and what they do is they take letters from people ... all over the country who have written these sort of semi-anonymous letters. And they distribute them to senior living facilities and people who are living in hospice.

     

What we do is we're the letter writers, and we send them to them, and they proofread them and make sure it's got acceptable content. At that point they've been able to address the letters to the senior citizens. So it really does look like it's a letter coming just for them.

 

Angela Gervasi: What do you think is the importance of having that letter directly addressed to an individual? 

Erin Markham: A lot of these people have not had a visitor or a phone call or a letter in years. When people make the transition to these senior living facilities, what I personally observed was that for the first two weeks they would get flowers and letters and visitors. And then after those first two weeks that was kind of it. 

 

Angela Gervasi: What do you tend to write in your letters?

 

Erin Markham: Would you like to hear one? So here's a letter that I wrote:

Dear friend: Greetings. My name is Erin, and I just wanted to write to you to say hello. 

I'm finishing my first year of nursing school, and so far I've had a lot of fun. In the past, I think we were called candy stripers. But now we all wear plain green scrubs. 

I think we look like a line of nervous green beans. Wish me luck on my final exams tomorrow. Thank you for letting me write to you and I hope that you have a wonderful day. All the best, Erin. P.S., my cat parsnip says hello too. 

And I always do a little doodle of my cat.

Angela Gervasi: How do you think it affects people to just hear about everyday things or random things?

Erin Markham: So it's very, very important.

What I tell my fellow club members, I tell them, this is going to be a one-way conversation. So, it is like an elevator conversation. Just kind of pretend that you have someone trapped in an elevator with you and you just won't shut up. 

Talk about what's on your mind. Because the person the letter is going to, probably, it's been a long time since someone just trapped them in an elevator. 

They're so tired of hearing about medications and blood pressure. Just talk about something that is important to you or even boring to you. Because they don't have access to that anymore.

It's so important and we take it for granted. Because we all have it. And when we don't have it is when, all of a sudden, we see senior depression skyrocket. 

There was one particular woman that I took care of. And she was very very quiet.

She wanted to talk about gardening. And she knew everything about gardening.

And I was like "oh I'm just having a terrible time growing these..." I can't even remember what I was growing. And she just said, "oh well you didn't put eggshells in there, did you?”  

She opened right up, and that was the way. And she had a lot of smiles towards the end of her life.  

The complexities of the senior isolation and senior depression — they were there during the best of circumstances. This is something we can do to just kind of do some good. Writing a letter might solve someone's week. Or month. You don't know how much good that you can be doing just by writing letters. 

Angela Gervasi: Thank you so much for your time. It was so great to learn about this.

Erin Markham: Absolutely. I want as many people to hear about this as they can. 

Markham runs the Yavapai College chapter of Love For Our Elders, an organization that writes letters to seniors in residential care facilities. Markham says anyone — not just students — can submit their own letters by going to loveforourelders.org

This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

 

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