Pen pals spread joy to seniors at assisted living facilities in pandemic – Sumter Item

By ASHLEY DILL

The Herald-Journal

SPARTANBURG – Robert Fox and his new friend, Stephanie, both share a love of music, amusement parks and animals.

The two have become pen pals and written letters to each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fox, an 87-year-old Army veteran and a resident of TerraBella assisted living in Spartanburg, and Stephanie, 15, have shared stories with each other.

Stephanie recently asked Fox about his first love. In her letter, she asked, “please share a story about your first love.”

“I told her about my wife,” Fox said. “She was 15, and I was 17 and already in the Army by then. I told her about what life in the military with a wife and three young boys was like. We lived in Hawaii and Italy, but I was stationed other places like Japan and Korea, places she couldn’t go. Having to leave my family was hard because I worried about them, but it was what I had to do then.”

Fox said it was important for the residents of TerraBella to receive letters from pen pals during the pandemic because the assisted-living facility wasn’t allowed to have visitors. Many assisted-living residents felt isolated and alone when their families and friends weren’t allowed to visit.

Fox said he remembers serving as a mail clerk in the Army during the Korean War and seeing the disappointment in the soldiers’ faces when they didn’t receive letters from home. Fox wrote a friend in his hometown of Inman and asked if he could encourage people to become pen pals to soldiers in Korea.

His friend, Jim Everhart, later sent him an excerpt from the Inman Times, with a small advertisement he ran in the newspaper asking locals to become pen pals with soldiers.

Home Instead Senior Care helped to organize the current letter-writing campaign. The Spartanburg company provides personal care, companionship, meal preparation, light housekeeping and other services to seniors.

And for Audrey Martin, director of community relations for Home Instead, this included doing its part to help decrease that loneliness that so many local seniors have felt during the pandemic.

“So far in Canada and U.S., over 7,000 pen pal letters have been delivered to seniors,” Martin said. “Different franchises can opt in to distribute the letters to the community. That’s where Home Instead came in. We delivered over 100 letters to seniors in the Spartanburg community.”

TerraBella resident Peggy Henthorn, 87, received her first letter about a month ago from a young girl named Allie from Arkansas. Allie included a photo of herself in the letter and asked how Henthorn was handling the pandemic.

Henthorn hopes to write back to Allie soon, but she’s still recovering from the aftereffects of having COVID-19 a few months ago.

She says the months of not having any visitors was difficult for the residents, but the staff did what they could to make things better for them, such as planning weekly events and activities for the residents to enjoy.

“I enjoyed getting this letter from Allie and hope to write back to her soon,” Henthorn said.

Brooke Hargett, director of health and wellness at TerraBella, says the residents are elated when they receive a letter from someone and are especially intrigued when the letters come from different parts of the country.

“It has definitely boosted morale,” Hargett said. “One of our favorite letters was from a single mother of a toddler. How they were home alone and isolated during the pandemic. Two completely different generations and circumstances, but our resident really identified with her. With the isolation, not being able to go anywhere. Just feeling alone in so many ways.”