The return of hand-written letters

Isolated elderly probably suffer the most from the corona measures. In Germany, a project called “pen and paper” brings positive messages from the outside. Surprisingly, mainly young people grab their pens. 

Photos and Text by Lea Dillmann
Illustration by Maartje Veneman

Christina’s concentration fades away. She is in the middle of an online lecture but is mostly thinking of her penpal. His name is Josef. “Should I send him the first letter?” 

She grabs a pen and paper, and writes down what she had already in mind. “Dear Josef …” She tells more about herself, where she studies, where she lives. She writes about her part-time job as a hostess in a soccer stadium. Whether he likes watching football as much as she does? Why not asking him? Questions may inspire him to an answer. Will he reply? 

Two days before, the 23-year-old student Christina Bauer finally received an email with all the detailed information of her first penpal. For two weeks, she had checked her mailbox three times a day. Although she is busy with master studies in Sport, Tourism, and Destination Management, Christina had applied to a German project called “Stift & Papier” which means “Pen and Paper” in English. She is one of around 18.000 people who signed up and became a penpal during the first six weeks. 

The project was founded at the end of March 2020 with the aim to make penpals for residents of nursing homes. The initiator of the project is Philipp Hein, manager of the Cologne Racing Club. He has been aware of the social isolation of elderly people for years now: “This problem will continue to be very present in the future, even after the crisis. That is why we, especially as a young generation, have to go ahead and create ways to support the generation of our grandparents.” 

In Germany, around 8 million people at the age between 60 and 99 feel lonely and isolated at least for a few hours a week, according to the German help organization Silbernetz. The corona crisis makes the situation worse: Due to the measures, nursing homes got closed. Visitors weren’t allowed for almost two months, from mid-March to mid-May. Caregivers wear protective clothing and face masks. The letters should bring positive messages to the elderly from outside. 

Everyone who participates in the project receives an email with the name of his buddy and the address of the institution he or she is living in. They have to take the first step and write the first letter. After many media outlets had drawn attention to the project, the number of registrations increased pretty quickly. Hein was surprised: “We discovered that especially the generation of digital natives, those who actually grew up with tablets and smartphones, was so fascinated by the idea of doing something analog.” 

If you click through the Instagram Stories on the profile of “Stift & Papier”, you will see pictures of filled baskets with dozens of letters. So far, Hein has only received positive feedback from the institutions: “The project itself isn’t about additional work for the staff, but more a benefit.“ 

As soon as the contact ban is over in Germany, many people will probably go back to their normal lives. Whether the project will keep going? Hein can imagine that many participants may have as much time as during the past six to eight weeks. But he’s also certain that the project will definitely exist beyond any corona developments: “Our experience has shown that people show interest on our project, regardless of whether we are currently in lockdown or not.” 

Christina heard about the project “Stift & Papier“ on TV and immediately got involved. She is happy to have a new hobby to focus on during the lockdown: “What I hope for is a friend from whom I can learn. But the main thing is, that someone else is happy with my letter and doesn’t feel lonely during these times.” 

Smartphones and laptops are part of Christina’s daily life and make it possible for her to keep in touch with her fellow students, teachers, friends, and family. In her opinion, the nice thing about letters is that she actually worries about what she is going to write. She can sit down and think of her words and its meanings, instead of typing a message with her phone while being in a hurry. Christina is certain: “This project leads my generation back to a more conscious way of communication.” 

Whether her penpal will reply? Christina can’t tell. She puts her name under the last written line. Then she folds her letter twice and puts it in an envelope. Before she glues it carefully, she adds a picture of her and her boyfriend. Now, only the address is missing. Christina already thinks about what to do if she doesn’t get a response. “I’ve been informed that some of the elderly simply cannot respond anymore. Maybe I’ll just wait for a few weeks and write another letter.”