A Fort Lewis College sociology class is reviving the lost art of letter writing to forge new connections with senior care facilities in Durango.
About 35 sociology students embarked on the letter writing project, facilitated by professor Rebecca Clausen, at the beginning of the semester. Some chose to write to their own friends and families; others chose to write to those in quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a way to combat COVID-19 fatigue – and divisions in American society, Clausen said.
“In general, our society gets separated out by age cohort,” she said. “Building connections across generations, in a bigger context beyond COVID, seems really important and worthwhile.”
Students in the Introduction to Sociology class learn about everything from self-care in the academic field, social stratification and movements for change. Clausen decided to create the letter writing project to help students connect to their studies and bring social change to life themselves.
During the semester, students would write at least three letters to their correspondents. Clausen invited Four Corners Health Care Center and Sunshine Gardens, both senior care facilities, to join the project after learning about the limited visitation at the facilities because of the pandemic. She realized residents at the centers are likely more disconnected now than ever from the broader community.
“I wanted to build something into the coursework that helps students feel connected to our community and also connects the community to the students,” Clausen said.
One student, Ellis McNichol, said her grandmothers inspired her to write to the Four Corners residents. One grandmother, a resident at the facility, said some residents didn’t have family checking in on them and they were having a rough time.
McNichol, a junior studying sociology and environmental studies, thought maybe she could help those residents through the challenging experience of the pandemic – and maybe they could help her as well.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed with going to school and the election. I’ve found in my conversations with people who are much older than me that it’s really good to ask ... if they have any wisdom to share,” she said. “It really means a lot to them if they have the space to feel like they could help a younger person.”
Because of privacy issues, the students couldn’t write directly to residents. Instead, a facility employee read the letters to a group of residents and then conveyed the residents’ responses to the students.
McNichol wrote about broad topics, like her studies and time in school, and asked the residents questions about their lives and experiences going through challenging times.
The residents responded with questions for her about her life, what she wants to learn and her perspective on the world right now.
“It’s a lost art. It’s kind of old fashioned,” Clausen said. “That was a neat part of it, too – students rediscovering letter writing and getting letters back.”
New connections between generations are healing for both parties, McNichol said, especially when connections between the youngest and oldest generations are often severed in American communities.
“That is a huge loss for our society that we’re not able, as young people, to hear from and provide space for elders to be heard,” McNichol said. “Letter writing is a very simple and easy way to bridge that gap.”
She said everyone should reach out to family, nursing homes, hospitals or even prisons through the lost art of writing letters. Just be mindful about giving out personal details and check with facilities first, she said.
“The possibilities are endless for connection,” McNichol said. “Anyone can build connections, even in a COVID world.”