How the art of letter writing is helping to tackle loneliness

Doris Gagen, from Otley, is one of a number of elderly people who have been linked with a student penpal as part of a scheme working to tackle loneliness. Picture: Tony Johnson

Doris Gagen, from Otley, is one of a number of elderly people who have been linked with a student penpal as part of a scheme working to tackle loneliness. Picture: Tony Johnson

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THE ART of letter writing may have taken a back seat to email, text messages and even video calls, but a University of Leeds project has revived it to help tackle loneliness in older people.

Students from the School of English have been paired with penpals across Yorkshire, and the scheme has made “a huge difference” to both the students, helping them to settle into a new city, and their penpals, some of whom are housebound with no family.

Bethany Gethings, Georgina Binnie and Lorna Donaghy  with some of the letters they have received affter setting up a penpal scheme  to help loneliness in older people. Picture: Gary Longbottom

Bethany Gethings, Georgina Binnie and Lorna Donaghy with some of the letters they have received affter setting up a penpal scheme to help loneliness in older people. Picture: Gary Longbottom

The project began last year as a pilot, developed by PhD student Georgina Binnie. After winning funding from the University’s Leeds for Life volunteering scheme and the English department, she trawled community groups, coffee mornings and lunch clubs across Leeds and Otley to find the first 14 older people who wanted to take part.

They were then matched, based on their interests, with 14 student volunteers, who would write to each other every two weeks. In June, at the end of the university term, the penpals met up at a party.

The pilot was such a success that this year’s project has doubled in size. It has been broadened to include older participants from across Yorkshire, and is on the lookout for more people to get involved.

Miss Binnie, 27, said: “The participants have told us how getting the letters has come to mean a great deal to them. The students are really committed on an emotional level too, and really care for their penpals.

People can still get involved in the scheme.

People can still get involved in the scheme.

“Getting something in the post that’s not junk mail or a bill is great for the students, too – it helps them feel part of the community.”

Initially participants came from organisations and community groups like St Michael’s Church in Headingley, Bramley Elderly Action and Otley Elderly Action.

The chairman of the Otley group, Doris Gagen, 85, was one of the first to sign up.

She said: “The thing I like most about letter writing is that you can go back and read them again. With winter coming, and long nights drawing in, there’s plenty of time to sit and construct a reply.

“I keep busy, and have a computer so I email and use Facebook, but writing a letter is so much better. You look out for the postman coming.”

Mrs Gagen built such a rapport with her penpal, Bethany Gethings, 20, that the pair continued to write together when Miss Gethings returned to Essex for the summer, and they plan on meeting up for coffee.

Miss Gethings said: “Nowadays you don’t get to write a letter very often – you just send a text message or phone, and I really like allocating that time to physically sit down and write.

“I really enjoy hearing about what Doris has been up to or where she’s been – she’s become another friend.”

In the pilot project, letters were themed around the centenary of the First Word War, and students used materials from the Brotherton Library’s Liddle collection and the Leodis photographic archive. For student Lorna Donaghy, 23, writing to her penpal Tony has enabled them to share a love of First World War poetry and literature.

She said: “I was really drawn to the project as a break from the stress of my degree and exams.

“We’ve written about a range of things, from travel and poetry to Bob Dylan. The process of writing and receiving letters has been really nice.”

This year’s theme is based around Yorkshire heritage and history. The letters will also be digitised and archived by the University to recognise the importance of the written word.

Miss Binnie added: “Some of the students are new to the area and don’t know a lot about Yorkshire. Sharing experiences is enjoyable for both sides.”

If you, or someone you know, would like to write to one of the students, contact Miss Binnie at the School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT, G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk.

The Yorkshire Post wants loneliness to be universally recognised as a health priority in our communities.

We launched the Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign in February 2014.

In partnership with the Campaign to End Loneliness, we also want to encourage more people to volunteer for support services. For full details, visit yorkshirepost.co.uk/loneliness.