74 years of age difference lie between Reemda Hahn (21) and her letter partner (95). Both are part of the project "UnForgotten – Letters against Loneliness" of the Institute for Slavic Studies at the Ruhr-University Bochum.
The concept: young and old exchange ideas, talk about their lives. 17 nursing facilities in the Ruhr region receive letters from students and distribute them to their residents. They then decide whether they also want to send back a response. The mutual interest is great: currently more than 170 pairs of letters write to each other – and not only in German, but also in Russian, Polish, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. "A letter is something very personal. It’s incredibly interesting to hear what she has to say," says Reemda about the contact with her pen pal.
Avoid visits due to corona
The "UnForgotten" project was launched in 2016 by Dr. Katrin B. Karl brought to life by the RUB. So far, students who speak several languages have regularly visited multilingual care recipients in their care facility for a year at a time in order to exchange information in the respective native languages. However, due to the corona virus, the personal visits had to be stopped. Since the end of March, letters have been written instead and a much larger group of people has been involved in the project.
Sharing personal information with a stranger?
This letter was written by a student for initial contact.
"In their first letter, the students first introduce themselves and usually also report on the background of the project," knows Katrin B. Karl. "Often photos, self-made things or painted pictures are sent along as well."Which residents receive letters is decided internally by the care facilities.
"Together with my colleague, I thought about which residents could benefit from the letters," says Dominik Jaschke. He is a geriatric nurse at the DRK senior citizens’ center in Freisenbruch, Essen. In retrospect, however, he would query interest beforehand: "Some of those we thought would be very happy had a certain skepticism or no interest in further exchange."
Some people in need of care are not entirely comfortable exchanging personal information with a person who is actually a stranger. This could be the case, for example, if they have mental limitations or already have grandchildren. Overall, however, the project has been positively received: "It increases self-esteem when someone young from the outside, who actually also has quite a few other employment opportunities, takes time to write a nice letter," notes Dominik Jaschke. People in need of care who have the opportunity to communicate in their native language again through letter contact are particularly happy about the campaign.
Dealing with illnesses and the subject of death
Students regularly share their experiences in a Moodle room. There, they not only have the opportunity to chat, but can also upload letters they have written or received in anonymous form and read those from other letter pairs. The RUB also offers a two-semester seminar that accompanies the project and deals with the institution of nursing homes, certain illnesses and the topic of death. Research papers reflect on social science aspects, among others. "We deal, for example, with how it is actually possible to make contact with a stranger through the letter and how the relationship work is subsequently shaped," explains project leader Katrin B. Karl. In addition, some of the letters from the people in need of care have a different typeface than we know today. So the change of language is also a topic of the seminar.
Overcoming barriers through reply cards
"When you’re involved in the project, you have to keep in mind that many people enter nursing homes because of illness or advanced age. It’s just not like a pen pal relationship with peers," says Reemda. Nevertheless, she hopes that her pen pal will remain healthy and that contact will continue for a long time: "I think she has a lot to tell and still has a great interest in learning things!"
Not all letter recipients in need of care are still able to answer the question independently. In these cases, they either receive support from the nursing staff, or prefabricated reply cards are enclosed with the letters. On them then applicable can be marked, like for example whether and how many children a person has. "Someone really put some thought into this, I think it’s great," says geriatric nurse Dominik Jaschke, praising the students for their creativity.
The generational picture is changing
The topics of the letters are individual and depend on the personal interests of the letter pairs. "Contact with the other generation often triggers thought processes and makes people question their own positions," observes Katrin B. Karl. That’s especially the case, he says, when it comes to reappraising historical issues. Often, those in need of care can tell of their own experiences during World War II and the postwar period. Reemda’s contact with her 95-year-old pen pal also changed her view of age: "People often assume that older people don’t notice so much anymore, but we totally meet on equal footing. I was surprised that she is still so fit at her age!"
Recently, they also spoke on the phone for the first time: "She told me about her marriage and where she has lived throughout her life. We also talked a bit about the Corona era and how society has changed a lot in the last few decades. And then I also told her about myself. For example, what profession I would like to take." Maybe they will meet each other in person soon.