Partial list of facilities Letters for Rose has worked with at end of article.
By GWEN OREL
In a small assisted-living facility in Maryland, a bulletin board displays brightly colored cards and letters from teens to residents.
One letter describes a teen’s grandparents in the army, and stories learned in history class: It is addressed to a resident who had served.
Another letter describes being in the marching band: It is to a resident who used to play the saxophone.
Residents “shared their letters with each other,” said Debby Rosenberg, nurse manager of Hummingbird Manor in Aberdeen, Md. “They could not wait to hear what each one said. It was awesome.”
The letters have come from teenagers who participate in a nationwide effort, started by two Montclair High School teens, called “Letters for Rose.”
When Annika Aristimuno and Layla Hurwitz, now juniors, began volunteering at the Family of Caring nursing home in Montclair last year, the teens were participating in Key Club, an international service club for high school students.
It was a nice thing to do. They went once a week, for an hour.
Neither girl expected to be so affected by her volunteer work.
“We would get so excited every week to talk to the residents about what they’ve been doing, and they also just loved hearing about the younger people and our lives when we came,” Hurwitz said.
So they were devastated when COVID-19 happened and they could no longer visit their friends. They worried about how the seniors would have any interaction.
“You could tell how much they needed to talk to people,” Hurwitz said. Busy aides often did not have enough time to spend chatting.
Her own grandmother has Alzheimer’s, so she knows a bit about what that experience is like.
Before they began volunteering, the girls did not understand how lonely residents could be.
Sometimes when they would walk through, they would see residents around the TV, facing different ways, some just staring at the wall, Hurwitz said. ‘“I’d be talking to a resident, and they would express how much they missed their family. For them to talk with people outside of the nursing home that actually can tell them about their lives and care to hear from them, it had a bigger impact than we realized it would. I think that inspired us to keep going after the pandemic happened.”
Aristimuno said that she might feel lonely when she cannot see her friends, “but these people are stuck in one room all day long, and being in a nursing home, seeing how they
interact and how a lot of them don’t even talk to the resident next to them, it really made us sad.
“We saw their faces light up when volunteers came in, especially high school volunteers. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk. They would just talk to us for hours about their life stories, and the most random things. It brought joy to us.”
They also found their time in the nursing home special because they put their phones away and truly connected with the residents and with one another. For that hour, there was no texting drama, and even homework stress faded away, Aristimuno said.
One resident named Rose was a particular friend, she said. Rose has dementia and did not always remember them each time, but she loved seeing them. She liked to draw, Aristimuno said. But she had trouble, because her hands shook, so the girls helped her. They worried about her when they could no longer see her.
And even when she did not know them, she would sit holding their hands, and say “I love you.”
“It had an impact on her that someone was sitting next to her, and making the effort to talk to her and listen to what she had to say,” Aristimuno said.
The girls determined to keep in touch with her and with the seniors they’d met.
Another woman also inspired them: an old woman who received a card from her children but did not understand it.
The card said “We love you.” “And she didn’t recognize that it was from her children,” Aristimuno said. “We were trying to comfort her, and she was crying. She thought it was from her own mom. She was bawling. She said, ‘I love my Mom. My Mom loves me.’
“She didn’t recognize who the card was from. But the fact that someone was saying that they loved her, and they cared for her, had such a big impact on her that when Layla and I were deciding what should we do to show the residents that they’re cared for, letters and artwork came into our head.”
“Letters for Rose” was born.
The two girls organized other teens to write letters, with artwork, poems and personal notes.
The organization now has 50 chapters in 25 states.
First Aristimuno and Hurwitz reached out to the nursing home they’d been working with, to get the names of residents. Then they reached out to friends and family in town, asking them to write a letter. The letters would be dropped off at a location, and the girls would deliver them.
“We ended up collecting 55 pieces of letters that our friends and family made,” Aristimuno said.
After that first batch, they began reaching out to other teenagers and asked if they were
interested in starting their own branches. They figured out different roles each branch would need: outreach coordinator, who would be in contact with nursing homes; ambassador, to find volunteers to write letters.
The girls made a Google Form to see if anyone would be interested. Hurwitz reached out to her friends from sleep-away camp.
Within a week they had hundreds of responses.
About 1,000 people are involved now, Aristimuno said, with 400 leadership volunteers. The group has a Slack channel. It is not incorporated as a nonprofit; the organization does not need any money, she said.
Each chapter runs things a little differently: Some groups write biweekly, some once a month.
Aristimuno and Hurwitz are also busy beefing up the group’s website, making it easier for new chapters to start. The teens are stressed themselves, and many are studying for their SATs.
“But we always make time because it means a lot to us, and the fact that it is coming from our own hearts,” Aristimuno said.
The process is to learn some details about the seniors they are writing to, and compose cards and letters with personal details.
“If they’re getting a letter that says, ‘Dear Martha, We love you,’ that’s going to be more beneficial to their mental state than if you say ‘Hi friend,’” Aristimuno said. “We try to make sure our letters are really personal.”
Rosenberg, of Hummingbird Manor, agreed. Because of COVID-19, residents have not even been able to go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, she said. But the joy they showed as they read their letters, and how each one could not wait to read the next, raised everyone’s spirits, she said.
“Handwritten letters are almost extinct — but our current elders have an attachment to that communication,” Rosenberg said, adding that especially now, when families cannot get together, this form of communication is even more important.
Aristimuno and Hurwitz have cried about missing their friends, and look forward to the day when they can visit again.
“Letters for Rose” reminded them of the impact they can make, and how the residents need them. “Even if we get busy, we can always get involved with a nursing home somehow,” Aristimuno said.
PARTIAL LIST OF FACILITIES
Partial list of facilities “Letters for Rose” has worked with:
Fellowship Square Historic Mesa (Ariz.)
Friendship Village Tempe (Ariz.)
Kiran Manor (Ariz.)
Serene Valley Assisted Living (Ariz.)
Tranquility Assisted Living (Ariz.)
Brookdale Magnolia (Calif.)
Academy Point (Conn.)
Mystic Healthcare (Conn.)
Lee Manor (Ill.)
Brighton House (Mass.)
Hummingbird Manor (Md.)
Lorien Bulle Rock (Md.)
Lorien Health Services (Md.)
The Addison of Fuquay Varina (N.C.)
Avendelle at Southern Oaks (N.C.)
Woodland Terrace (N.C.)
Canterbury Village (N.J.)
Family of Caring (N.J.)
Little Neck Care Center (N.Y.)
Ozanam Hall (N.Y.)
Puyallup Nursing and Rehab Center (Wash.)