En español | When Kirby Feldmann retired from her high-stress job in the pharmaceutical industry nearly two years ago, she looked forward to finally having time to volunteer. She got involved with a grassroots organization to provide daylong respite care — or needed breaks — to caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.
She also raised her hand to train older people to use technology. Plus, she volunteered with a group that helps community members with disabilities find employment.
Then COVID-19 hit and “put the kibosh” on everything that kept her busy, said Feldmann, 60, of Racine, Wisconsin. “I was really looking for something to fill my days because, suddenly, I had a lot of time on my hands,” she said. “I have to have something to do.”
One year later, Feldmann has filled the void by sending letters that reach hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the country. COVID-19 has devastated that population, killing more than 175,000 long-term care residents and staff and leaving hundreds of thousands more isolated amid pandemic restrictions on visits and activities. With a federal program to vaccinate residents in long-term care communities nearing completion, visitors are now able to return under new federal guidance, but many restrictions remain in place.
Feldmann began writing letters after she went searching for ways to stay engaged as a volunteer in the early days of the coronavirus. She stumbled upon a "send-a-note” program on the website for Good Samaritan Society, one of the nation's largest providers of nonprofit senior care and services. She'd never heard of the Evangelical Lutheran organization, which has more than 200 facilities, including nearly 160 nursing homes, in 22 states. But the free online tool that lets anyone send messages to the group's locations — offering the option to address notes to “any resident” — seemed too easy to ignore.
"I looked at it and thought, Wow, I could do this,” Feldmann said. “I could start this tomorrow."
So for a year now, every Monday through Friday she has been logging on to the Good Samaritan Society website, dropping a note in an online form and clicking on individual facilities to send it to, repeating the process for about 80 locations and growing. On the receiving end, a facility staff member prints out the letter to distribute or read aloud to residents or to pin onto a public bulletin board. Other long-term care facilities, organizations and individuals have set up similar pen pal programs or put out calls for letters, cards and kids’ drawings — a sign of how important communication with residents can be, even when it comes from strangers.
Feldmann writes about the mundane goings-on in her life, including accounts of her early-morning walks. “Attached is a picture of some geese in our neighborhood enjoying a morning swim,” she wrote last fall. “The signs say ‘no fishing’ and ‘keep off ice', but no mention of swimming, so they seem to be following the rules!” When a goldfinch began showing up at her window, she shared photographs of “Frankie” and stories of the bird's escapades.
Her goal is simple: to bring joy and make sure people know they're not forgotten. She reminds residents to stay active and always ends with the words “Keep a smile on your face, and know that you are loved by many.”
For nursing home residents like Mary Chamberlain, in Indianola, Iowa, the constant letters have been a game changer. In a video produced by Sanford Health News (Sanford Health merged with Good Samaritan two years ago), Chamberlain said the letters “make me happy, and I know I'm loved by somebody.”
Hearing from the outside
Feldmann's been connected to long-term care her whole life. Her mother worked as a nurse in a senior community's nursing center in Illinois, and Feldmann grew up listening to residents’ stories. Now her mother resides in the independent living section of that same community, and Feldmann sees that not everyone there gets visitors. That's been even more true during the pandemic, which sent long-term care facilities into varying degrees of lockdown over the past year.
Every weekday morning, Feldmann does her online exercise class, sits down with her breakfast and coffee and pulls out her iPad to start typing. Her first notes, to no one in particular, were met with confusion and emailed questions from the employees who opened them: “Do you know anybody that lives here?” “Do you live in this town?” “Why are you writing?” Feldmann's answers were always the same: “Nope. Nope. It just seems like a fun thing to do.” It didn't take long for staff members to start sharing her letters.
She writes about her husband, John, and shares pictures of the two of them, including one from Halloween, when she dressed up as Betty Crocker and he as the Pillsbury Doughboy. She and John have conjured up weekly competitions to keep homebound pandemic life and her letters interesting. They've gone head-to-head decorating pumpkins, making Valentines and inventing variations of s'mores, all of which she's chronicled.
Chamberlain, 73, the Iowa resident, doesn't have a lot of contact from family members, so staff began bringing her Feldmann's notes. She saves them all, filling three binders that she revisits. She gets teary-eyed describing Feldmann, whom she calls “a sister."
Feldmann's fans also include long-term care staff. Jennifer Batesel, the director of marketing and sales at a Good Samaritan Society site in Mountain Home, Arkansas, says Feldmann has emerged as an “icon,” a celebrity columnist of sorts renowned for her humor and inspiring words amid pandemic times: “It means so much to them to hear from the outside."
Sometimes Feldmann writes about her own mother for added motivation. “I did my online exercise class as usual. My mom and I will do her exercises early this afternoon,” she wrote a while back.
"She has decided her favorite number is ‘one’ because when we do our reps, we count backward so that the last rep is always number one,” Feldmann wrote. “I hope you are able to get some exercise in today too!"
Jessica Ravitz is a contributing writer who covers nursing homes and human-interest stories. She previously wrote for CNN Digital and The Salt Lake Tribune, and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.