One elderly woman’s courage has inspired hundreds of other senior citizens to speak out about their loneliness and isolation and thousands of younger people to reach out to them
Two years ago a 37-year-old Missouri woman named came home to a hand written note from a neighbor she had never met.
“Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old — live alone and all my friends have passed away. I am so lonesome and scared. Please — I pray for some one,” it said.
The letter writer, Wanda Mills, also left her address.
The recipient, Marleen Brooks, had lived almost directly across the street from her for a year and a half, but never met her.
“I literally, honestly didn’t know anybody lived there,” Marleen told The Washington Post.
She recalled tearing up reading the letter, as it reminded her of her own grandmother, who had raised her, and then died alone in hospice care, which still bothered her.
The next day, Marleen and a friend arrived at Wanda’s door with cupcakes.
Wanda seemed surprised and excited by the visit, as if she didn’t believe it, Marleen said.
She sat and talked with her for an hour, learning that Wanda had lived there for over 50 years and hadn’t left the house for the past seven.
She had congestive heart failure, was on oxygen and had trouble walking, and relied on daily caregivers who visited the house daily. But they weren’t the same as friends, she explained.
“I hope you didn’t think I was stupid for writing you, but I had to do something,” Wanda told Marleen.
Wanda’s husband, sister and one of her son’s had died. Another son actually lived next door, but didn’t visit often.
“Neighbors don’t neighbor like people used to,” Wanda told The Post. “Neighbors used to visit each other. But they don’t do that here, I don’t guess they do anywhere.”
Loneliness is the single largest risk factor in disease and premature death, according to medical doctor and author Lissa Rankin, who points to multiple studies to back up her claim.
Lonely people have significantly higher rates of heart disease, cancer, dementia, high blood pressure, diabetes, infection, anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction and suicide, her research shows.
Wondering how many others were out there silently suffering in isolation, Marleen posted the letter on Facebook reminding people to check on their elderly neighbors and started a Facebook group called Pen Pals for Seniors, with the intention of matching young and elderly participants.
Within a month she had 6000 younger volunteers, far more than the 500 or so elderly people who reach out.
One 40-year-old woman in Missouri was matched with a Canadian woman in her late 60s.
Her own mother died two years earlier.
“As you go through life and things happen, I want to call my mother and I want to tell her about it. I can write Faye and tell her,” she told The Post. “It’s good to still have that connection with the older generation.”
“I don’t think people are going to always say, ‘I’m lonely,’ ” said another participant, who has exchanged a dozen letters with her pen pal since she signed up three months ago. “I don’t think it’s going to be revealed, due to people’s pride and stuff, but I think it’s more widespread than you would ever know.”