The Letters of Love Program for Older Adults
By Helaina Hovitz for Next Avenue
With all the pressures today’s teenagers experience around academic work and extracurricular activities, while keeping up a social life, it’s truly remarkable to come across a young person who is not only running his own nonprofit and taking the time to volunteer, but doing it with the goal of bringing joy to a much older demographic.
Jacob Cramer, of Cleveland, is truly remarkable.
Now 18, Cramer began volunteering at a nursing home at the start of his adolescence. While there, he became discouraged about the state of things: the elderly residents, he recalled, weren’t really getting any visitors — many were just sitting in their rooms, isolated.
Moved to do more than he already was, Cramer started writing letters to residents of his local nursing home, then reached out to those at other nursing homes. His project grew to become the nonprofit called Love for the Elderly. It’s a global program that people of all ages, anywhere, can get involved with, and it’s incredibly simple.
Letters Mean a Lot
“What challenges a lot of my volunteers is what to write. In the first letter I ever wrote, the cover said ‘You are amazing’ and the inside said ‘You are loved’ with a little heart,” said Cramer. “It’s cheesy, but for people, it means a lot. Especially when there’s decoration.”
Love for the Elderly has inspired people in 64 countries across six continents to make a difference. The organization works with more than 50,000 seniors, and Cramer has given dozens of speeches and workshops on behalf of the nonprofit to audiences ranging from 10 to 1,200 people.
A letter can’t “do it all,” Cramer said, but when recipients hang the letters up in their rooms in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, or prop them up on their night stands, it can hopefully have a long lasting impact.
Since Love for the Elderly launched, there have been two additions to the program: the Sunshine Box, which encourages people to fill up a box with fun little things like oversized glasses and leis and bring it into a nursing home near them and a Senior Buddies pen pal program, which started in February 2016 as a pilot program after Cramer received a request from a teacher in Brazil.
Gratitude from Homebound Clients
Bonnie Dupree, home delivery coordinator at Serving Seniors in San Diego, makes sure the letters she receives through the program are delivered to all her group’s homebound older adults along with the meals they get.
“Many of our home delivery meal clients are all alone and they have no family close by, or the families are working,” said Dupree. “When our drivers deliver the handmade cards and letters to our clients, they are so happy and grateful to receive such a special treat. Many of them keep the cards and letters out where they can see and read them every day.”
According to Dupree, the recipients are very surprised and happy that strangers take the time ” to make them feel so loved and special.”
“We always get phone calls to thank us for the cards and letters, they tell us it makes their day and week, that [the letters] make them feel so good and loved,” she said. “Many feel very forgotten, are in a lot of pain and go weeks with no contact except from our drivers.”
A Personal Connection
Cramer and his family paid a visit to a senior facility in Lemon Grove, near San Diego, a few years ago to meet some of the older adults who had received his cards and letters.
“He was greeted with lots of smiles, hugs, and thank you’s. It was a special day for everyone. We are definitely the lucky ones; we are always so thankful when we get a package from Jacob,” said Dupree.
Tips for Getting Involved
Cramer, who is now a freshman at Yale, believes everyone has the resources needed to make a difference — kids don’t have to follow his lead and start an entire nonprofit to generate change.
His advice to other young people (or older people) who want to get involved: volunteering as a friendly visitor is always an option, and it’s something that provides instant gratification.
Another option is finding a part-time job or volunteer opportunity working at an assisted living facility, Cramer said.
“Many nursing facilities have small cafés that rely on volunteers, which are a great way to connect with residents,” he added.
Chad Fotheringham, founder and president of Amada Senior Care, said that for those who want to get involved with visiting older adults locally, the best thing to do is to ask for the activities director or the marketing director.
“Having a point of contact that can give you the protocol to follow can be very comforting and make the intimidation factor go down. Introduce yourself and let them know that you are interested in volunteering, and the activities director will be able to plug you in, or the marketing director can help you feel right at home,” Fotheringham said.
You may also be able to call the facility and try to make initial contact over the phone, which can be less intimidating and less time-consuming, he added.
According to Cramer, the reward is very worthwhile. “There’s nothing like seeing the smile you’re giving to a person who needs it.”
© Next Avenue - 2018. All rights reserved.
PHOTO: Jacob Cramer, founder of Love for the Elderly [credit: compliments of Helaina Hovitz]