Letter writing project at Niagara College boosts well being, bridges gap between generations

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Niagara College press release – Can letter writing increase well being?

Niagara College Recreation Therapy students are finding out first hand, as part of a class assignment that has them exchanging hand-written letters with seniors and youth. The positive intervention assignment, known as the Pen Pal Project, is part of an Applied Positive Strategies in Therapeutic Recreation class, where students learn about well being and leading theories about how to increase it.

The initiative launched in 2018, with first-year students exchanging letters with residents at Heidehof Home for the Aged in St. Catharines. The project has not only returned for 2019 but it has expanded to include seniors at The Williamsburg retirement residence in Burlington, and youth at the Niagara Children’s Centre.

For four weeks, students write to their pen pals focusing on a different pillar of well being each week – gratitude, compassion, connection and happiness – to discover if the act of writing about these ideas to another person increases these emotions for the students. They also complete a pre- and post- test each week related to their assigned topic, to determine if their scores improved.

The project culminates with Pen Pal social events on the fifth and final week where students have the chance to meet their pen pals in person. After taking place at Williamsburg on March 27, socials will be held at Heidehof and the Niagara Children’s Centre on April 3.

Recreation Therapy professor Jaclyn Frail, who spearheaded project, noted that it enables students to put theory into action and test if positive psychological interventions work for them.

“Students love telling me, ‘my score went up after the letter!’ For them, I think it’s the realization that the project is actually having a personal impact,” said Frail. “It’s hard to put into words how the project has benefitted the students. There is a different energy in the class during these four weeks, different than the other weeks of class. We are all excited and engaged.”

Andrea Colquhoun, who is planning to work with older adults after graduation, has been enjoying the experience of writing to a 93-year old former teacher who lives at Heidehof.

“It’s been great to learn about this amazing woman. This experience is teaching me that older adults have a lot to teach us – not only in their previous experiences, but by writing to each other,” said Colquhoun. “You grow your abilities to be more empathetic, which is an essential skill in this field.”

Heather Vokey, manager, Life Enrichment Services at Heidehof, noted that the inaugural Pen Pal Project in 2018 won the hearts of many residents and they were happy to continue their involvement.

“Residents have benefited from the social and emotional connection of new friendships formed through this program. The opportunity to participate allows the residents to continue to strengthen their relationships with the NC students and be a part of a specific course-based assignment,” said Vokey. “Through the weekly exchange of letter writing, residents find it very rewarding to be giving back to the community and be an active part of the education of today’s young minds.”

“It was a wonderful program. Writing with the students and reading about what their outlook on life and their vision for what is yet to come was heartwarming,” said Lucy Fuocco, a resident at Heidehof who participated in the project. “It made me think back to when I was in college.”

Earlier this year, Niagara College became the first college in Canada to become a member of the Age Friendly University Global Network [View news release: Niagara College becomes Canada’s first college to join Age-Friendly University Global Network].

“This initiative is another great example of how Niagara College faculty and students engage with the older adult population within our community, allowing us to further contribute to our goal of supporting the Age Friendly University network principles,” said Carolyn Triemstra, dean of NC’s Community and Health Studies Division.



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