Niagara College pen pal project promotes well-being

Niagara College pen pal project promotes well-being

Student, senior and youth participants benefitted from writing letters to one another

Photo: Yvette Bartkiw, a resident of the Heidehof Home For The Aged, received letters from three different pen pals throughout a four week project in the Applied Positive Strategies course of Niagara College’s Recreatino Therapy program. – Beth Audet/Metroland

Yvette Martkiw had never heard of hip-hop before being paired with pen pals from Niagara College.

She assumed it meant hopping and skipping down the road, she laughed.

But despite a wide generational gap, the 72-year-old resident at the Heidehof Home for the Aged found a lot of commonality with the three recreation therapy students with whom she corresponded.

“They’re still young ladies looking at tomorrow wondering where it’s going to take them.”

This was Heidehof’s second year participating in the college’s four-week pen pal program, the first year for Martkiw.

The letters brightened her spirit and gave her something to look forward to, she said, and helped her to not only bond with the students but also some of her fellow residents.

“Friendship is so necessary.”

Heather Vokey, the home’s manager of life enrichment services, said creating family is an important mission for their organization.

To be able to make that connection with Niagara College and open up a new extension of their family, she said, was truly meaningful.

“I thought it was wonderful. I believe inter-generational programming benefits both the students and the residents.”

Seniors can easily experience feelings of loneliness when they transition into long-term care facilities, but Vokey said it was evident they didn’t feel lonely while they were writing back and forth.

Each of the pen pal pairs get the opportunity to meet in person at a special social celebration, and afterward, the residents write a word to describe their experience.

A framed paper now hangs in Vokey’s office filled with words like amazing, life-changing, inspiring, rewarding, memorable, powerful, etc.

Professor Jaclyn Frail said she had been reading about using expressive writing as a medium for creating feelings of well-being when she created this project.

She figured it’d make sense to reach out to a population group that a lot of the students would be working with when they graduate.

After the success of the first four-week project in 2018, they reached out to another senior’s home, in Burlington, and the Niagara Children’s Centre, in Welland.

Whether the students were writing to seniors or youth, she said the response was positive across the board. It’s quickly become the highlight of the year.

“I ask them what could we do to make this better next year … all of them want to spend more time (corresponding) with their residents.”

Students are sometimes apprehensive when the project begins, said Frail. They wonder what they’re going to write and what on earth they’re going to have in common. But that’s the whole point – to take people who are superficially different and give them the platform to bond.

Each letter is themed around a different pillar of well-being – gratitude, compassion, connection and happiness.

The students are then given a psychological measure of each of the pillars by taking pre- and post-letter tests.

Although the data is not intended to be used as any kind of official study, Frail said she often hears students proclaiming that their scores increased after writing their letters.