In today’s fast-paced world, letter writing seems like a lost art. Quaint and novel, at least for younger people, but impractical compared to the instant gratification of text messaging and email. Even so, research suggests that taking the time to draft handwritten letters provides health benefits we don’t get from typing out an email. In some cases, health experts even believe letter correspondence between loved ones can be a tool that protects cognitive health and preserves memory function.
At Autumn View Gardens assisted living community in Creve Coeur, we use a range of activities and therapies to help older adults maintain as much cognitive function as possible, including writing letters.
Letter writing can be therapeutic for older adults with dementia, providing a way to express their thoughts and emotions without the frustrations of verbal communication. As a form of creative writing, it can support a senior's sense of well-being, accomplishment and self-esteem while promoting communication skills.
Letter writing does more than make you focus on good penmanship. It activates the part of the brain in charge of making plans, multitasking and remembering instructions, all of which are necessary for storing short-term memories. As we age, this part of the brain often experiences some decline. Writing letters can help keep us mentally sharp, providing benefits that extend beyond catching up with loved ones far away.
Writing letters also prevents communication skills from getting rusty. If you often feel like the word you want to use is on the tip of your tongue, you know how frustrating it is when you can’t quite flesh out the thoughts in your mind. This is a common annoyance for those living with dementia. Writing requires a slower, more relaxed pace, making it easier to express thoughts and emotions.
There’s a reason writing things out is often an essential part of therapy. Simply putting pen to paper provides an opportunity to reflect on circumstances and work through challenges. For those with dementia, it's often hard to express feelings of frustration, unhappiness and fear. Writing these things down provides a healthy outlet and promotes freedom of expression. As an added benefit, it gives friends and family helpful insight into their loved one's experiences and helps them know how to provide support and reassurance.
When you write, you use parts of your brain that you may not use in other activities. This cognitive engagement helps your mind stay alert and maintain mental processing speed. It can improve your memory of past events and people you love. When people with dementia write about themselves in a letter, it can trigger important memories and even enhance remembrance.
Dementia can be very isolating as it makes it challenging to create and maintain social bonds. Letter writing provides a non-threatening, failure-free way to express feelings and talk about interests with friends and family. This can have a significant positive impact on mental health and happiness.
To help a loved one in memory care get the benefits of writing, consider prompting them to sit down with pen and paper once a week. Less than that and it may be difficult to make it a habit; more than that, it may become a source of added stress.
Set them up for success by ensuring they have the essentials on hand. This may mean picking up some blank cards and envelopes, personalized stationery or even plain lined paper. They also need to have plenty of ink pens on hand. If holding a pen is uncomfortable for them, you might consider purchasing writing aids that attach to the ink pen and make it easier to use. You also want to make sure they have plenty of postage stamps on hand.
Deciding to incorporate a new discipline such as letter writing is easy. Setting the time aside to actually do it, however, can be significantly more challenging. Set aside a specific day for handling written correspondence. Choose the time of day when your loved one feels the most mentally sharp, and set a timer that fits their level of engagement and ability to concentrate. Make letter writing a regular habit and it can become something they look forward to.
Writer’s block doesn’t just affect authors; it can pose a challenge to anyone who sits down to put their thoughts on paper. If words and ideas don’t flow easily for your loved one with dementia, they may benefit from keeping pen and paper with them and jotting down ideas as they come throughout the week. Activities, outings, books they've read, childhood memories that surface and even new foods they've tried are great topics to include in their letters.