A wise man once said a picture is worth a thousand words. But for some residents of the Buena Vista Care Center, a thousand words is all that’s needed to put a smile on their faces.
In Spring of 2001, senior biology major Matthew LeDuc started making plans to implement Compassionate Connections, a program that links UCSB students to people living in assisted-living facilities in the Santa Barbara area as pen pals. The program aims to decrease the loneliness felt by people in skilled-nursing facilities and to create an intergenerational bond between college students and the elderly.
“I wanted to implement a program that would connect students on a different level, through kind of old-fashioned correspondence, writing, which is really something that with computers and everything, we’ve kind of lost that personal interaction that comes with letters or something,” LeDuc, now the program co-coordinator, said.
He said he was inspired to start the program after hearing about a lonely elderly man at Friendship Manor who took his own life.
“[Compassionate Connections] is an original idea that I came up with last year actually, just in response to some of the things that I had seen in the community,” he said. “I spent a lot of time going through and talking to people who lived [at Friendship Manor] and they were really affected by [the man’s death] and they indicated that loneliness and depression really wasn’t something that was uncommon at these facilities.”
Current statistics, provided by Adventures in Caring, a local community service organization, indicate that up to 50 percent of elderly residents receive no visitors, which can cause them to become lonely and depressed.
Once LeDuc began to push the project into action, he realized that he had bitten off more than he could chew and decided to bring in a co-coordinator, senior pharmacology and Spanish major Patrick Farmer. Together, the two planned and implemented the Compassionate Connections program.
LeDuc and Farmer sought the advice of Adventures in Caring Foundation Director Simon Fox on the type of facility that would be appropriate for such a program. Fox suggested they contact Julie Mullins, the activities director at the Buena Vista Care Center, to see if the program could be implemented there.
“She does a lot of pilot programs at that facility, so I contacted her and she OK’d it and we started matching up students here with elderly residents at that skilled nursing facility,” LeDuc said.
Once the program at Buena Vista was fully developed, LeDuc and Farmer recruited a band of enthusiastic writers who would be able to support the program’s mission statement to “promote understanding and compassion between generations.”
“I decided to get involved with the program after talking to its founder. [LeDuc] was very enthusiastic about the program and encouraged me to join. I love writing letters and am always looking for new opportunities to meet new people, so I decided to do it,” Compassionate Connections pen pal and senior biology major Meagan Littlepage said.
Like Farmer and LeDuc, Littlepage is planning to go to medical school after she graduates.
“The medical profession requires a level of compassion that I don’t feel is adequately addressed in medical school. It’s easy to lose yourself in the tremendous workload and forget why you wanted to go into medicine to begin with,” she said. “Programs such as this allow students like myself to slow down, step back and get to know people that may one day be our patients. It’s important to stay in touch with the personal side of medicine.”
Not all patients at the Buena Vista home are able to participate in the program due to their handicaps, so the activities director chooses potential letter recipients.
“Some residents have severe dementia or other severe handicaps that are not really conducive to a correspondence program like this, so we then go and talk to those residents [that don’t have these problems] and find out if they would be interested in participating,” Le Duc said.
While there is not an in-depth applicant-screening process, LeDuc said Compassionate Connections personally interviews all potential student pen pals before they are allowed to participate in the program.
“Simon Fox taught us a lot about making sure that in a volunteer organization people really succeed at what they’re doing, and so it’s very important that you pick people that you think are going to succeed,” he said.
LeDuc found his first round of pen pal recruits in UCSB’s honors program. Junior psychology and business economics major Jessica Mattila is Joan Evans-Beattie’s pen pal, and one of the first student pen pals to sign on.
“I received an e-mail describing Compassionate Connections from the honors program and it immediately appealed to me,” Mattila said.
Littlepage said she decided to volunteer because she feels the elderly are often neglected by society.
“I love the premise that it is based upon. I personally feel that our elderly population is grossly overlooked and unappreciated, and I like the idea of connecting people from different generations. I think that both sides benefit and learn a great deal,” she said. “I also love that the program is completely run by students. Our generation has been criticized for being apathetic and uninvolved and I think that this program shows that belief to be a fallacy.”
One of the major complaints from residents in long-term care facilities is isolation, which can lead to a sense of worthlessness.
“I had a lady break down and cry because she felt like she wasn’t needed anymore – she had family come and visit her on a limited basis,” Le Duc said. “She wanted to be needed, and wanted to show people she’s here and can contribute.”
The first training sessions for Compassionate Connections started in early January 2002 and were based on a manual created by LeDuc and Farmer. During the training sessions, Farmer and LeDuc go through the manual with the volunteers and explain the guidelines and rules. Participants also have to sign a waiver stating that they will not accept any money or gifts from their pen pals.
“There’s a sheet they sign for a waiver at the end that says, ‘I’m not going to take advantage of anybody,’ and basically it’s not a significant amount of time, but we absolutely make sure that they are here for the proper reasons – that they are here to bring compassion to others, to bridge the generations,” Farmer said.
Also included in the training packet is a promise to keep the content of letters confidential. Pen pals are required to e-mail LeDuc or Farmer after every letter is sent and participants must send a minimum of two to three letters per month.
“It’s an excellent volunteer opportunity. It doesn’t take too much time to make an impact on someone’s life, which can be a rewarding and powerful experience,” Littlepage said.
Unlike other outreach programs, Compassionate Connections volunteers are not required or even encouraged to visit their pen pals unless invited. In place of visitations, they are encouraged to send photos of themselves to their pen pals.
“The situation is that you wouldn’t presuppose that you’re invited, you wouldn’t just show up at someone’s house without them saying ‘please come visit.’ So we try and steer away from our volunteers deciding,’Hey I’m going to go visit,’ but if the residents request it, that can be arranged,” LeDuc said.
Elderly participants are excited about the program.
“I think that it will be fun. I’m real impressed with this woman I’ve contacted. The letter she wrote was a good letter. She wrote well and she sent me a picture. And hopefully we’ll be able to make more contact later on,” Matilla’s pen pal Joan Beattie-Evans, a resident of Buena Vista, said.
The Adventures in Caring Foundation recently agreed to umbrella the program, bringing Compassionate Connections more exposure in the community.
“Adventures in Caring has hundreds of volunteers, so it’s going to give us a base to expand even more and it gives us credibility in the community because we can say we’re affiliated with a foundation that’s already really reputable,” Farmer said.
Due in part to the exposure the Adventures in Caring Foundation provides, LeDuc and Farmer recently received e-mails from Santa Barbara City College students and other community members who wish to participate in the program. They have also been corresponding with local elementary and middle school teachers in order to include their students in the program.
“We have about 10 volunteers right now and we really want to expand it. And beyond even UCSB students, we’re interested in having the community interact with these residents. And an idea we’ve been throwing around is taking to the Meals on Wheels program and just kind of getting the program out to people that wouldn’t be reached in the skilled-nursing facilities,” Le Duc said.
More than anything, LeDuc and Farmer would like to improve the lives of all members of the community, and they think that can be done through simple communication.
“Our entire point is to bring people together and everyone needs an opportunity to let their soul shine,” Farmer said. “That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here and I would say that we’re achieving that, but then of course, I’m biased.”
If you are interested in becoming a pen pal with Compassionate Connections, please e-mail Matthew LeDuc and Patrick Farmer at .