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."