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After taking down Christmas decorations at Lady Slipper Villa, soon-to-be activities director Toni Vary thought the empty space looked boring.
“I immediately started thinking, ‘okay, what can we do next?’” she said.
COVID-19 restrictions in the province have restricted visitors to long-term care and limited the amount of activates available to residents outside homes.
When Vary realized Valentine’s Day was the next major upcoming event, she decided it would be nice to have people from the community send in cards.
Vary requested “snail mail” cards: something the residents could hold and share, something to decorate the walls with. They would help liven the space, give residents something to do, something to look forward to and help them cope with isolation and loneliness.
“They’re not getting the same traffic that they would normally get, and they can’t go out,” she said. “I thought wouldn’t this be nice if people could send them something and make them smile.”
When Vary posted her request to a Facebook group, she expected people would be supportive. She would have been happy with cards from 20 or 30 people.
What she didn’t expect, though, was more than 100 comments on her post. People from as far away as British Columbia and Boston, Massachusetts responded, asking for an address to send the cards to.
“I was surprised it’s gone as far as it has,” said Vary. “I got way more than I expected.”
Andrew MacDougall, director of Long-Term Care in P.E.I., said tough times for seniors in long-term care homes have “peaks and valleys”.
Pandemic-induced visitation restrictions, he said, have been one of those valleys. Holidays can also be hard when residents don’t have a family to spend the day with. Winter can also be difficult, as it is for many people, seniors or otherwise.
During these valleys, MacDougall said it’s important to keep residents engaged and in contact in other ways. Video calls with loved ones and hobbies can help ease feelings of loneliness.
“It’s important to us that our residents get to connect as much as they can with the world beyond,” he said.
Keeping long term care residents engaged, in MacDougall’s opinion, is a group effort. Family members, volunteers and the broader community all help play a role in mitigating loneliness.
Although Vary said Villa residents are “getting a little tired” of COVID isolation, she said the community is small and family-oriented enough that they’re not alone.
“Not everybody’s friends with everybody, but everybody has a good friend in there,” she said. “I think they’re … as happy as they’re going to be, locked in."
In addition to the valentine’s cards initiative, Vary had also started a pen pal group for the residents. They had their first meeting on Jan. 12.
Fourteen of the Villa’s 28 residents participated in that meeting – Vary is hopeful a few more will join, after hearing how their friends enjoyed it.
“Everybody was quite pleased,” Vary said.
After searching for pen pals on the internet, Vary found four addresses to write to – three in the United States and one in Ontario. She said Islanders who want to send letters to the pen pal group are also welcome to.
“I think it would be nice to have anybody drop them a note if they want,” she said.
The Valentine's cards and pen pal program aren’t the only ideas Vary has planned for when she steps into her new position. She said she’d also like to start up a walking club and have a gardening day.
“Anything to get people doing something, communicating with each other and hanging out is nice.”
Kristin Gardiner is the Journal Pioneer's rural reporter.