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'Mail call’ at Bristol nursing homes becomes vital antidote to coronavirus isolation

Hartford Courant - 3/26/2020

Like nursing home residents around Connecticut, the elderly women and men at Ingraham Manor in Bristol have gone without visitors, group activities or even dining room companionship since early March.

That’s the why surprise bonuses in their daily mail delivery are now so essential to their morale.

Each day for the past week, Ingraham Manor staffers have gone room to room distributing cheery handwritten cards, notes and even crayon drawings. All of the messages arrived by mail from strangers -- mostly children -- in the city.

“These cards and letters are making our residents feel they’re not forgotten. It’s such a wonderful thing, it brings us to tears every day,” said Noreen Schmidt, therapeutic recreation manager at Ingraham Manor.

Schmidt and Sue Paris, a recreation therapist, came up with the idea of inviting Bristol people to write to Ingraham Manor’s roughly 110 elderly residents.

Some are in long-term care and others are there for short-term therapy after an illness or injury, but they’re now all in a form of lockdown as the nursing home works to prevent any spread of the coronavirus. Visitors including relatives were banned after March 9, and a few days later group activities were stopped. Residents no longer can eat together in a dining room, but get their meals in their rooms.

“It makes providing for our residents’ psycho-social well-being more challenged," said Ashley Soyka, the nursing home’s administrator. “We know what’s been taken away from our residents.”

To help ease the loneliness, Paris posted a message early last week on Bristol Talks, a city-oriented Facebook page. She invited cards and notes from Bristol people, especially young children who are stuck home while schools are closed.

“We’ve seen a lot of mail come in, and it’s brought a lot of joy to our residents at a time when there’s not much joy,” Soyka said. “There are messages from elementary school children and middle school children. A lot of it is ‘I just want to say hi,’ or they introduce themselves and tell us a little about their lives. Some have drawings of flowers or butterflies.

“The residents’ faces light up when they see them, they’re smiling and their eyes are bright,” Soyka said.

Staff members divide up the messages to distribute between the rooms, and Schmidt said they disinfect any cards or photos that residents would touch.

Annie Ouellette, a school employee who is home during the shutdown of classrooms, encouraged her toddler son, Everett, to make a card. Now it’s become part of their daily routine.

“He’s 2, almost 3 years old. We were looking for anything to keep us occupied, particularly crafty stuff -- we have plenty of supplies and we have time on our hands,” she said.

Ouellette explained enough about the crisis so Everett gets the idea that the letters help other people.

“My son understands there’s a lot of germs out there so some people can’t visit their families, that the letters we send make the people happier. That’s how he’s thinking of it,” she said.

“So we spend a little time each day to make this awful situation a little better,” Ouelette said. “His older sisters have pens, markers, scissors, glue sticks. He colors on the computer paper, then we cut out shapes and glue them on. There’s usually a little message, too, like ‘Your neighbors are thinking of you’ and ‘Hang on.’”

Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu was drawn to the idea, and is trying to expand it to five other local nursing homes: The Pines, Shady Oaks, Sheriden Woods, Village Green and Countryside Manor. The city calls its campaign the All-Heart Pen Pal Program, and encourages letters from adults as well as youngsters.

Nursing home staffers already try to help their elderly residents connect with relatives by FaceTime, Skype or other video chats. Some set up video calls between rooms so the residents who are accustomed to seeing each other every day in the dining hall still get to connect.

“Social isolationism among senior citizens is a major issue," city council member Scott Rosado said. "Research consistently shows that feeling connected and involved is a major benefit for both mental and physical health.”

Amid the fear and isolation gripping our state right now in wake of the coronavirus outbreak, neighbors are stepping up in extraordinary ways to help others. In our new “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” series, we will profile those acts of kindness and generosity. If you have an idea, please email it to kmccallum@courant.com.

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