The pandemic has been particularly harsh on the elderly, as many them have been isolated from their families to protect them from the ravages of covid19, because of their greater susceptibility to the virus.
At homes for the elderly, even though they have the company of other residents, they are not allowed to interact with family members or anyone outside the homes, or even go out.
Bridges to the Heart, a non-governmental organisation, has found a way to lessen the resulting loneliness and bring some joy to the elderly this Christmas with its Adopt a Christmas GrandPal initiative.
Its founder Sasha Bernard, 28, explained that owners and managers of ten elderly homes across the country were asked to provide the first names, ages, and interests of their residents.
The information was posted to Bridges’ Facebook and Instagram pages for any interested person to choose one or more grandpal to write. The writer can then drop off their cards, letters or small gifts at any Shoeaholic branch across the country up to December 6, to be collected and distributed by Bridges members.
The organisation stepped in an effort to diminish relationship gaps in society particularly between the youth and the elderly as well as the disabled.
“There are a lot of overlooked populations within society that exist in our day-to-day lives. We wanted to bring awareness to these gaps and do what we can to help bridge those gaps. The bridge is compassion and love so it’s a bridge to the heart.”
Bernard, who described herself as an empathetic person, said the idea came to her when she noticed an elderly man in a wheelchair trying to cross the street on Independence Square. He was stuck in the middle of the road because drivers refused to stop to let him cross and were instead swerving around him.
Not too long after she saw an elderly couple standing in the rain at the side of the road with bags of groceries. The man was trying to shelter his companion while clutching several bags but no one stopped to helped them.
“I saw these things and they opened my eyes to the challenges people in our society experience every day. We don’t even think about it because human nature is so selfish that once it doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t concern us. It got me thinking that something needs to be done.”
Back then, she planned events and did volunteer work with her church. Two friends were encouraging her to start her own organisation so she could branch out but she was hesitant. However, when she observed instances of apathy, she decided society could do better. She thought she could to help make it better and improve the quality of life for those overlooked people.
Bernard and her team started with the generational gap but the need was so great that it has remained their focus.
Since 2014, their main project has been the Adopt a Grandparent initiative in which they visit senior citizens in residential homes.
“We foster relationships with them, engage them socially, stimulate them so that they benefit from what we have to offer them in the social context and we benefit from what they have to offer us from their wealth of wisdom.”
They also started several fund-raising activities including a Christmas dinner, the Grill and Lime outdoor barbecue with games and entertainment, and the Christmas Road Trip on which they visit various elderly homes to parang and distribute gifts.
Covid19 stopped most of their activities since
visitors were not allowed in the homes. Instead, the Bridges members started social media campaigns in which they talked to people about what they could do to support the elderly during the pandemic.
Bernard said she was talking to a friend about the future of the NGO when her love for greeting cards came up, and then the idea of penpals.
“I didn’t want it to be letters alone and thought we could do greeting cards because I feel as if people love receiving cards and anything that reminds them that they’re loved.”
The other team members agreed and around July 2020, the NGO launched the first Adopt a Grandpal event.
She said the response was overwhelming with thousands of people sharing the post on social media. The members drove all over Trinidad to collect over 300 cards to distribute to about ten elderly homes across the country. They also bought cards and wrote greetings for those who did not get any, or did not get as many as other residents
They tried it again last Christmas to a less enthusiastic response but decided to relaunch this year because “it’s been a year and at Christmas everyone has a little more love and cheer in their hearts.”
She said the managers of the homes were eager to participate because the cards were well received as
residents laughed and smiled when they read their cards.
“They really enjoyed receiving something that was specifically for them that was not a bill or some bad news. Also, for many it was a surprise as some of the managers didn’t tell them why they were taking their information.”
One home owner told Sunday Newsday last year her residents were happy and excited to receive the letters. She said although many of them have dementia, some still wanted to reply. One woman, 99, kept her card in her Bible to look at every day and remind her of the happy feelings.
Rita, 72, who has had three strokes, said she was glad to receive the card, and the contents of the card still makes her feel good when she re-reads it. She replied to her sender by dictating a letter to the home’s owner.
Bernard said Bridges does not collect the senders' information because it does not want people to feel obligated to reply, or for senders to expect a response. However, some senders
put their addresses on the back of the envelopes and some residents replied.
“There is a misconception of these residents, that they can’t do anything for themselves, that they’ve lost all independence, but that’s not true. We also want to break that stigma attached to these senior citizens homes. It’s crazy what people think but when you actually go and interact with them for yourself, you realise you were so wrong.”
This year, there are over 100 grandpals and Bridges will allow
cards, letters and small gifts.
“People have asked us about small gifts. At first we said no, because you don’t want one person to get a gift and the others don’t, but we changed our minds. From the last time we realised people use their hobbies to show their love so we got small canvas paintings or an orchid if they (the resident) liked plants, so we did not want to stop that showing of love, but food of any kind is not allowed.”s
In addition, local card-makers contacted Bridges to donate cards which the NGO’s members intend to give to those who do not receive a card.
People have asked to meet their grandpals but because of the current restrictions, she encouraged people to go
on Adopt a Grandparent trips to homes when visits resumes.