The COVID-19 pandemic has hit older adults especially hard. Age is a risk factor for serious illness and death, so facilities that house older adults are confining residents to their rooms and limiting visits from family and friends. But thanks to animal therapy team volunteers of Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, part of Colorado State University’s School of Social Work, residents are receiving love from a distance through a steady stream of letters and photos.
The letters are written by the HABIC volunteers from the perspective of the therapy animals to maintain interactions between the residents and animals. Before the Colorado stay-at-home order was announced on March 25, the HABIC dogs, cats, and volunteers would visit the senior centers and their residents on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
HABIC trains and supports volunteer human-animal teams to provide animal-assisted activity and therapy to people of all ages. HABIC volunteers are active in schools, long-term care facilities, hospitals, and youth correction facilities among other health and social service organizations in Colorado.
Kate Miller is the animal trainer and volunteer coordinator for HABIC and has been coordinating the delivery of letters to senior care facilities in the Northern Colorado and Denver area.
“As soon as it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to visit the long-term care communities, we started brainstorming how to stay in contact,” said Miller. “Letter-writing was so well received by the staff and residents that it became our main focus. Our goal was, and still is, to ensure that these communities know we’re thinking about them and sending our love. We let this be known through the unconditional love of our pets that speaks volumes through their letters and photos. The residents are not forgotten, and we haven’t gone anywhere. We just want them to know that.”
Promoting interactions from afar
Both volunteers involved with HABIC and residents of Fort Collins have been writing letters to the older adults with creative stories or anecdotes out of the lives of their pets. Once a week, Miller delivers the handwritten or typed letters to the facilities for residents to read. These letters could be a story told from the animal’s perspective or just about a pet’s activities at home. Volunteers tell the residents they miss visiting with them, and wish them health during the time of COVID-19.
Staff at the senior care facilities have even been reading the letters out loud to their fellow staff members to give a sense of hope and cheer as they work to care for the residents and take measures to protect them from the virus. Residents happily anticipate the letters sent by Miller and even post them outside their rooms. The staff have expressed their gratitude for the efforts of the HABIC volunteers to stay connected.
“This is AMAZING. Thank you so, so, so much for this wonderful, heartfelt idea. Our residents will absolutely love this,” said Dani at North Shore Health & Rehab Facility.
“Thank you so much for all that you’re doing for our residents! They really enjoy and appreciate all the letters you’ve sent,” said Angel from Sierra Vista Health Care Center. “It brightens their day and makes things a little easier!”
Lemay Avenue Health and Rehabilitation Center Activities Director Rebecca Wohlers says the staff members post the letters on the monthly activities board, distribute them to residents, and have them available in the common area of the facility. Since Colorado’s stay-at-home and now safer-at-home orders have been in place, the Lemay Avenue Health and Rehabilitation Center has received a letter from the HABIC animals every week to every other week.
“I feel like it is very important for the residents to receive the letters during quarantine,” said Wohlers. “About 50 residents read the letters on a regular basis. It helps them to be able to connect to the community during a difficult time. The residents enjoy reading about the animals and then will typically reminisce about an animal they have had. This will bring back joyful memories for them. It is also a great common interest between residents and staff, and can spark a meaningful conversation.”
Writing a letter
HABIC is currently accepting letters written by volunteers. Handwritten or typed letters are greatly appreciated and will be sent to senior resident facilities in northern Colorado and the Denver area.
Volunteers can write or type a letter and email them to HABIC@colostate.edu. Letter writers are encouraged to talk about their pets at home or tell a heartwarming animal story. Photos are greatly appreciated as well.
Instructions for writing letters
Under normal conditions, Human-Animal Bond in Colorado sponsors animal-assisted therapy in senior care facilities. In lieu of animal visitations amid the COVID-19 outbreak, it is encouraging writing letters to residents. Contributors are asked to write about their pets at home, or share any heart-warming animal story.
The letter itself can be addressed to “Dear Resident,” “Dear Friend,” or whatever feels right.
Include pictures if possible! The cognitive capabilities of residents varies widely. Some residents may not be able to read a letter, but they can see a sweet picture.
Email the letters to HABIC@colostate.edu and they will be passed along to all the agencies HABIC has a contract with.