Sadly, handwritten letters and cards are a thing of the past. For those of us who use email, text and social media, we don’t notice. We over-communicate constantly. However, for people in their 70s, 80s or 90s who don’t use a computer, they truly miss receiving letters in the mail.
For many years now, this shift in letter writing has concerned me. I realized seniors only receive a handful of cards a year, mostly around Christmas and New Year’s. If they are lucky, they’d collect one or two family portraits, a photo of a recently married grandchild and an image of a new great-grandbaby. In the same time period a senior receives just a few photos, I see dozens (if not hundreds) in my Facebook feed. The decline of handwritten mail causes a great melancholy over me because I know this form of communication will continue to fade away.
In the last decade, the US Postal Service reported a decrease of 26.6% in overall mail delivery and a 53.2% decrease in stamped envelopes -- which includes payments and personal correspondence. That’s a loss of 24.4 billion pieces of stamped mail. It makes sense when you think about how online bill pay has slowly replaced putting a check in the mail. And it makes sense because more people nowadays keep photos on their smart phones than displayed on their shelves at home.
Curious about the impact a lack of personal mail has on older adults, I asked four ladies over 80 years old about it.
Jean Heln is concerned. “Penmanship and spelling will be a thing of the past,” said the Eskaton resident.
“You can tell a lot about what’s going on with a family member by their handwriting; you can read between the lines. Also, letters from little kids are cute and you can’t get the same feel from the computer,” said Eunice Banks. “I like it the way it was,” she said adamantly.
Marilyn Logan, on the other hand, has embraced the new ways of communicating. “The benefit of texting is that it buzzes to tell you that you have a message. You look at who it’s from, and if it’s not important, you don’t have to waste your time talking to them!” Marilyn found a true advantage to using technology.
Irene Benton is an example of someone who is adaptable. “I get pictures over my iPhone,” she told me. “I would love to receive more postal mail, but I understand the change and I just go with it.”
However, Irene and Marilyn don’t use social media. “There’s so much stupid stuff on Facebook,” said Marilyn. Pew reported in 2013 that nationally only 27% of people over 65 years old use social networks. Slowly, those who adopt technology are finding value using social sites for communicating.
A study from the UK last year demonstrated training older adults in social media improved well-being and reduced isolation. During a recent “Cyber-Seniors” documentary screening at Eskaton Village Grass Valley, a select group of residents enjoyed watching other older adults adopt new communication tools, such as Skype used for video calling. After watching this movie, residents now want to learn how to use these tools. Eskaton staff is working to teach technology that enriches lives by bringing residents closer to their loved ones.
While letters are vanishing, they are a way to preserve history in a very different way than the modern electronic email or text. Most older people I know have a box of handwritten notes reminding them of years past. As technology progresses and our culture shifts, letters will continue to fade as a forgotten art form. It’s all of our jobs to preserve the memories in as many ways as we can, and that includes adapting to new ways of communicating.