Recent studies have shown isolation in seniors can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. The feeling of loneliness was only further exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Snoqualmie Valley Senior Center is bridging the gap and creating meaningful connections between older residents and high school students by offering a pen pal program, said Far East Senior Hub program coordinator Valerie Stewart.
“Letter writing can lift spirits, ease isolation and create new intergenerational, long-lasting friendships. It’s fun to connect with these pairs every month to discover all the great things they are learning about one another,” Stewart wrote in an email. “I think especially during the COVID-19 pandemic this has been a fun and enjoyable program for all the participants.”
A colleague at Greenwood Senior Center in Seattle encouraged her to implement a pen pal program for Snoqualmie Valley residents in 2020, so she went for it. Sno-Valley had previously offered a program for younger students, but Stewart wanted to focus on high school students instead, she noted.
Stewart said students from Cedarcrest and Mt. Si high schools as well as other Issaquah-based schools are matched up with seniors. The center partnered with the Empower Youth Network in Carnation to offer this program, she said, in addition to local honor society groups and youth councils.
“I have learned many things from my pen pal,” one student in the program told Stewart. “Writing to my pen pal has shown me the possibilities of life outside of my current bubble. She attended an arts school and went on an incredible backpacking trip across Europe with friends. Her stories have brought historical events to life. [It’s] interesting to look at history from a different perspective.”
The program has matched up about 20 seniors to students so far, but Stewart hopes to grow the program even more. She said participants should aim to write at least one letter a month for a year.
“I received two letters from my pen pal this month,” one local senior told Stewart. “He mailed them from the East Coast. He told me all about his trip. I’ve learned of his challenges during COVID and remote learning. It’s been a very rewarding experience.”
The first pairs started writing to each other last fall, she said. And now, most matches are still connected. Some high school seniors moved away for college, so they removed themselves from the program, she added.
For both parties, Stewart said, having a pen pal provides an opportunity to ease loneliness and isolation while sharing life stories with a person within their community. The program also teaches the art of letter writing to younger generations, she added.
“[I] love communicating with my pen pal,” another senior told Stewart.
As the pandemic ceases, Stewart said, she would like to gather pen pal participants for an in-person meeting to continue the sharing of stories.
The program is made possible because of the Far East Senior Hub (FESH). Stewart said the hub was founded using funds from the King County Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy that was renewed in November 2019.
Stewart said three senior centers make up FESH, including Sno-Valley Senior Center, Issaquah Senior Center and Mt. Si Senior Center.
FESH aims to provide services and social activities for residents ages 55 or older, veterans and vulnerable populations, she said. The county created the hub because all three centers serve rural communities with common needs such as a lack of transportation and services.
“The three senior centers can help each other out,” Stewart said. “We can brainstorm together; we can refer seniors to each other, and then, we can work together to reach out to King County.”
The Sno-Valley Senior Center serves residents from Duvall, Carnation, Fall City, North Bend, Snoqualmie, Snoqualmie Ridge, East Redmond and Issaquah.
To learn more about FESH programming, contact Valerie Stewart at email@example.com.