A 2016 report by the British Heart Foundation and Co-Op found that 9 million people in the United Kingdom often or always felt lonely. Loneliness doesn’t just affect older people. In a 2010 survey by The Mental Health Foundation, 36% of 18–34 year-olds worried about feeling lonely. Letter writing is routinely decried as a ‘dying’ art but, at the University of Leeds, students and older members of the community are helping to tackle loneliness and improve wellbeing by exchanging letters with another. In 2014, I founded Writing Back, an intergenerational letter writing project that matches University of Leeds students as pen pals with older Yorkshire residents. Having arrived at the University of Sheffield for my undergraduate studies in 2007, I found comfort in regularly exchanging letters with my grandma. Four years later, after teaching School of English students at the University of Leeds, and volunteering at a local care home, I decided that I wanted others to be able to experience the same solace that I had found in intergenerational letter writing. Just as the care home residents that I spent time with expressed a desire for greater communication and companionship, so too did my student cohort. In matching these two groups as part of the Writing Back programme, I have now facilitated letter writing between over two hundred people and have witnessed first-hand the generosity of spirit in their letters.
In Jo Cox’s maiden speech, she advocated for a kinder society, arguing that ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’. Writing Back adheres to this ethos of common human values. Despite the students and the older participants’ differing ages and backgrounds, their letter writing frequently leads to the formation of long-lasting friendships. Reflecting on this relationship, student Olivia noted, ‘I’ve become good friends with Val, my pen pal, and it’s been a great chance to chat with someone very different that myself’. She further described the project as being ‘a lovely way to get involved with the community in Leeds’, writing, ‘I really like the fact it makes a difference in elderly people’s lives. It’s opened my eyes to the experiences of people very different from myself’. At university, students can find themselves moving between their accommodation, the campus and the city centre, without always venturing further afield. Many of Writing Back’s older pen pals have lived in Leeds and Yorkshire for the entirety of their lives, and they are able to share their wealth of knowledge with their younger partners. The students are also provided with historic photographs of Yorkshire and are encouraged to send these images with their letters. This exchange of words and images led one student, Ian, to comment, ’I have grown in confidence and learnt more about the surrounding area and how it’s changed over the years, as well as being able to make use of some of the unique documents the Brotherton Library houses’. Ian further acknowledged of the project, ‘Not only have I made some great friends across various different levels of English, but [I] have made a long-lasting friendship with my pen pal, Joyce, who I recently described as my ‘Northern grandmother’!’
For the older participants, the benefits of the project can be profound. One of the older letter writers described how ‘The Writing Back project has allowed me to write to someone whom I would otherwise never have come across. It is interesting to exchange letters with a much younger person, to hear her views, discover her interests and share topics of “written conversation” without necessarily having met one another’. There is something inherently personal about receiving a handwritten letter in the post, particularly when considerable care has gone into this correspondence. Reflecting on the benefits for the student participants, an older pen pal, Margaret, wrote, ‘I think it helps them get over the early term homesickness knowing that a letter on the mat one morning for them shows some cares, someone is quietly supporting’. For Margaret, the scheme ‘is breaking down barriers – there is no them and us’.
In putting pen to paper, what might initially seem like a small act of kindness has the potential to transform lives and communities. Many of the students who join Writing Back will have never had a pen pal, and some will have never written or received a handwritten letter. Writing Back challenges its participants to look beyond their initial differences and champions intergenerational correspondence as a tool for fostering a more tolerant and understanding society.
Everyone hates January. The post-Christmas comedown hits us hard, especially with 2017 being such a tough year. Kindness 31 is our antidote to that. Every day we’ll share a good news story about someone (or a group of people) and their act of kindness or how they helped others. If you want to get…