How 2 McMaster grads use pen pals to help seniors battle COVID blues in nursing homes

Charmaine Holland, a McMaster health sciences graduate, and Aliza Prodaniuk, a McMaster english and cultural studies graduate, are running a pen pal service that is reaching long-term care homes as far as the Prairies with letters coming from as far as Bermuda and Iran.

The duo are looking to turn the pen pal service into a non-profit organization

Hugh Purvis, a resident of Maple Park Lodge in Fort Erie, Ont., is one of the seniors receiving pen pal letters. (Submitted by Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative)

Charmaine Holland says she has always been close to her grandmother — the woman who inspired her to become a geriatric doctor — and who she thought of when she decided to act on the news of COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes, killing isolated seniors.

Now, she and Aliza Prodaniuk, a fellow McMaster alumna, are both running a pen pal service that is reaching long-term care homes as far as the Prairies with letters coming from as far as Bermuda and Iran.

"It's extending a web of kindness to the whole nation and beyond," Holland said.

Canada's senior citizens have been hit hardest by COVID-19, particularly those who stay in long-term care homes, retirement facilities and nursing homes. Many of the victims died alone.

Aliza Prodaniuk (left) and Charmaine Holland are the two initiative coordinators trying to ease the feelings of isolation seniors are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative)

Holland says, after mulling over how to help seniors, the idea of creating a pen pal network came to mind. The problem was sending and receiving handwritten letters during the pandemic. It would create a host of issues. 

Instead, she decided people would email their letters. Holland covers the organizational side of the initiative while Prodaniuk, a professional writer, formats the letters and sends them to homes. The seniors also write replies. They call their project the Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative.

"We wanted to ease the feelings of isolation," Prodaniuk told CBC News.

"It's been really exciting and awesome to see the positive impact it's been making in the community but also in the care homes."

Seniors feel they're 'not forgotten'

So far, the duo has connected with 30 homes, 11 of which are in the Hamilton area and 10 in Niagara region. The other homes are in Ontario and some are as far as Alberta. 

Those who want to write letters reach out by email. Some weeks, they get up to 30 letters. Sometimes that many in a day. And some of the volunteers have written upwards of 30 letters in the almost three-month life of the pen pal service. Many of the volunteers also write in French. The homes receive messages from pen pals every two weeks.

"This elderly woman, who is 95-years-old, told us about how all the elderly gentlemen in her home were having a contest to see who can grow the longest ponytail … they're all in various stages of balding," Prodaniuk said.

An Oyen Lodge resident in Oyen, Alta., holds a pen pal letter she received. (Submitted by Caring and Connecting Pen Pal Initiative)

But the duo have also received praise for the letters. Holland said Heritage Green Nursing Home in Stoney Creek told them that residents were reading the letters "over and over again."

"We're not just making a difference at one point in time, we're giving them a true connection," she explained.

Prodaniuk said it validates the entire purpose of the pen pals.

"You can see that they're feeling like they're not forgotten when they write back letters to their pen pals."

Now the duo are looking for a third member to help manage social media. They also plan to gain non-profit status and expand the initiative. 


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.