Lincolnshire woman aims to curb loneliness one handwritten letter at a time
Liza Johnson can be found most days in her cozy home office in Lincolnshire writing letters by hand to people she might never have met before in hopes of delivering them comfort and making their lives a little better.
Johnson estimates she's written 1,800 letters over the past three years through her nonprofit organization, Letters From Liza. to people experiencing loneliness and social isolation.
"Personal correspondence is one small way to let them know that someone is thinking of them," Johnson said.
Many of the people to whom Johnson writes are older adults who've lost loved ones over time.
"One woman told me all of her friends and relatives are dead, 'so I really look forward to your letters,'" Johnson said.
Medical researchers have linked social isolation and loneliness to many serious health problems.
Seniors experiencing social isolation had a 27% higher chance of developing dementia than those who weren't, found one study published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, which tracked 5,022 U.S. adults 65 or older.
Poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in strokes, found the authors of a 2016 study, published in Heart, of more than 7,500 records.
And people without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely, concluded researchers who analyzed the health data of 308,849 people in a paper published in PLOS Medicine in 2010.
"No one looks at it as a life-or-death issue, but good physical and mental health is key to happiness," Johnson said. "It needs a little more weight and importance."
Pam Pellizzari, director at the Barrington Area Council on Aging, has seen the benefits of Johnson's letters firsthand.
Pellizzari invited Johnson to visit members of a day program for older adults living with dementia that is run by the council and hosted at Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Barrington. During her first visit, Johnson brought a collection of vintage toys to encourage the group of around a dozen adults to share childhood memories.
Johnson took notes on what they said, and the next time she visited she had personalized letters for each of them.
"It made them feel special to see their name and that someone had remembered something special about them," Pellizzari said. "They felt valued, that what they had to say mattered."
Johnson said she strives to tailor the correspondence to the recipient, but occasionally when she's starting out with a new client she has to resort to more generic topics.
"I have a dog named Violet, and she is a wealth of content because everyone likes dogs," Johnson said with a laugh. "But there always seems like there are endless things to share."
Working with groups like the Barrington Area Council on Aging or the Chicago chapter of Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly is one route Johnson has used to try to expand her list of pen pals.
Johnson said she hopes to ramp up the number of clients receiving regular letters. But because of the social stigma attached to loneliness, she's found promoting her service has its hurdles.
"A lot of people like the concept of Letters From Liza but will give me a defensive response," Johnson said of times when she's asked people in person to sign up to receive letters. "'Oh, I'm not lonely, I'm not isolated,' they'll say."
"I want to say, 'Try it, see if you like it. Take that first step.' That's my challenge to them."
Johnson encourages people interested in receiving letters or who would like to recommend the service to others to call her at (847) 254-0090 or email LettersfromLiza@gmail.com. Those interested in donating their time, money or even unused letter-writing supplies can find out how to do so at her organization's website lettersfromliza.org.