MAK­ING NEW FRIENDS, ONE LET­TER AT A TIME

When a lonely se­nior wrote to a neigh­bour seek­ing friend­ship, it spawned an out­pour­ing of pen pals

Regina Leader-Post - - WEEKEND - TARA BAHRAMPOUR

This past spring, Mar­leen Brooks, a 37-year-old prop­erty man­ager in the small town of Park Hills, Mo., 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 some one.”

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

The let­ter writer, Wanda Mills, had left an ad­dress — a house across the street and a cou­ple of doors down.

“I lit­er­ally, hon­estly, didn’t know any­body lived there,” said Brooks, who has lived on the street for a year-and-a-half.

The next day, she and a friend brought cup­cakes to Mills.

“She was ex­cited that we came over there, and we sat and talked for about an hour,” Brooks re­called.

Mills, who has trou­ble walk­ing and uses oxy­gen, told her that she hadn’t left her house in seven years and re­lies on care­givers who come daily. But they weren’t the same as hav­ing friends.

Mills 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. It turned out that a third son lived next door but didn’t visit of­ten, she told Brooks.

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

An AARP sur­vey found more than one third of older Amer­i­cans to be lonely.

Brooks won­dered how many oth­ers out there were liv­ing like Mills, un­known to their neigh­bours.

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 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 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 flyers and sent let­ters to churches, se­niors 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. Brooks said high school class­mates that she hadn’t heard from for years have con­tacted her. Em­ploy­ees at her lo­cal post of­fice call her “Pen­pal Girl.”

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

“It kind of 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 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.”

Ge­or­gia Parker, 40, of Dittmer, Mo., cor­re­sponds with a woman in her late 60s in 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 Faye and tell her,” she said. “It’s good to still have that con­nec­tion with the older gen­er­a­tion.”

An­other mem­ber, D’Linda Wal­lace of Mun­sing, Mich., said that in the store where she works, older cus­tomers of­ten want to linger and talk. See­ing Mills’ let­ter on Face­book made her won­der how many of them suf­fer from lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion.

“I don’t think peo­ple are go­ing to al­ways say, ‘I’m lonely,’ ” said Wal­lace, who has ex­changed a dozen let­ters with her pen pal since she signed up three months ago. “I don’t think it’s go­ing to be re­vealed, due to peo­ple’s pride and stuff, but I think it’s more wide­spread than you would ever know.”

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

Speak­ing on the phone from her room there, Mills told The Wash­ing­ton Post that hardly any­one had vis­ited her at home in re­cent years.

“Neigh­bours don’t neigh­bour like peo­ple used to. Neigh­bours used to visit each other. But they don’t do that there. I don’t guess they do any­where.”

In fact, when Brooks ini­tially showed up at her door in re­sponse to the let­ter, she was sur­prised.

“I needed friends,” she said, adding, “I thought it was nice, to want to help some­body.”

JAMES BROOKS

Mar­leen Brooks vis­its Wanda Mills, 90, in the nurs­ing home where she moved re­cently.

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