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The Case for Letter Writing During the Pandemic, and Beyond

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The Case for Letter Writing During the Pandemic, and Beyond

The joys and major benefits of letter writing for older adults

We need to interact with other human beings, and when we don’t, both our mental and physical health suffer. Social isolation can be as bad for us as chronic conditions like high blood pressure and bad habits like smoking, while social ties can reduce deaths among people with serious medical conditions.


As we age, it’s even more important to stay connected since social isolation has been directly linked to physical decline in later years. Nonetheless, because older adults are more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19, it's crucial to engage in social distancing, even with loved ones. We can stay connected with friends and loved ones while staying safe by writing physical letters, an activity that benefits both the writer and the recipient. 


Writing letters doesn’t offer the immediate gratification of an in-person visit, it’s true, but it is a way of keeping in touch with those we care about, while also doing something for those people, and without putting either of you at risk. A way of being with someone when we have to be apart, letter-writing is peculiarly suited to life during a pandemic. 


The value of a handwritten letter

Writing letters, especially by hand, has been shown to sharpen memory and our ability to learn and improve sleep. And because letter writing promotes mindfulness, indeed, can be a form of mindfulness itself, letter writers can also reap its many benefits as well.


“Because,” as one fond letter-writer argues, “sending a letter is the next best thing to showing up personally at someone’s door. Ink from your pen touches the stationary, your fingers touch the paper.... Something tangible from your world travels through machines and hands, and deposits itself in another’s mailbox. Your letter is then carried inside as an invited guest. The paper that was sitting on your desk, now sits on another’s. The recipient handles the paper that you handled. Letters create a connection that modern, impersonal forms of communication will never approach.”

 
Writing a letter by hand requires your focus, time, intention, and patience. It takes more effort than calling, texting, or emailing someone, so the fact of the letter itself tells the recipient that you care about them. You cannot write a letter worth reading while doing something else, and if you write by hand, you must be deliberate; there’s no “delete” button. When we write by hand, we are forced to focus on one thing: the tip of the pen making contact with paper.


Benefits of writing

There’s a lot of negative information that we’re being asked to think about these days: the pandemic, a divisive political climate, and increasingly disastrous natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, to name a few. Focusing on the act of writing can help calm your thoughts. One writer likens it to “closing out mental ‘tabs’. It frees up mental bandwidth.” 

Cognitively, writing by hand is good for us because it engages so many parts of our brain -- looking at what we write on the page, touching pen to paper, and remembering the shapes of the letters. 


Letters are an opportunity for gratitude

Of course, what you write matters. And writing about something for which you’re grateful can improve your mood, not to mention the mood of the recipient. There’s a lot of research demonstrating that expressing gratitude improves both our mood and our health, even helping us fall asleep faster, and have longer, more refreshing sleep. Experts argue that writing letters of gratitude can make us feel happier, more satisfied, and, “if you’re suffering from depressive symptoms, your symptoms will decrease.”


A letter of gratitude is not necessarily a letter of thanks. You might recall a joyful time you spent with someone, but you might just as easily write about something, even a very “small” thing, that provided a moment of contentment, joy, or a respite from the increased stress everyone is experiencing: the warmth of the mug and the smell of your coffee in the morning. A favorite song. An unexpected kindness from a stranger. A video of a grandchild giggling.

As the essayist Phyllis Grissim-Theroux noted, “To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart.”


Who needs a handwritten letter? 

These days, who doesn’t? Friends stuck at home and lonely for company? A phone call will help, but a good letter is something they can read over and over again. And then reap the benefits of writing you a letter in reply. Grandchildren who are stuck at home will love letters from grandparents they miss. Grandkids too young to read? Draw pictures, use crayons. Cut out pictures from magazines. Adult children stressed out, stretched to the limit between work and kids? Reading a thoughtful letter, heck, a thoughtful postcard, from a parent will help make them feel seen and appreciated. 

 

Writing a letter is an act of generosity that lasts, because we can keep letters that mean a lot to us and re-read them, even hand them down as family heirlooms. 

 

Getting started

What do you need to start writing letters? Someone who’d like a letter, which is probably everyone you know, some paper (fancy paper is nice, but any paper will do), a good pen, and a stamp, all of which you can buy online. 


And if none of that is compelling, there’s always Ernest Hemingway’s reason for writing letters: “It's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something.”



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