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A young spin on an old idea: Two teens tackled senior isolation with 460,000 handwritten letters
Photos: Letters Against Isolation

Saffron and Shreya Patel launched a movement and it started with just a handful of handwritten letters.

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If you want a boost of faith in the youth of today, look no further than Shreya and Saffron Patel.

In 2020, the world came to a screeching halt in a sweeping act of human solidarity against COVID-19. When it became clear that seniors were among the highest risk from the disease, the rest of us did what we could to protect them.

Unfortunately, protecting our elders meant staying away from them. Older folks are already more prone to loneliness than other age groups, and sadly the pandemic exacerbated the feeling of isolation many seniors experience.

The Patel sisters, 16 and 18 at the time, recognized the issue with their own grandparents early in the pandemic, so they made a point of calling them frequently. But when their grandmother shared how “ecstatic” she was at receiving a handwritten letter from a friend one day, they got an idea.

“This small gesture of connection meant the world to her,” says Shreya. “We realized that many other seniors may also be feeling disconnected, and that they may appreciate a letter.”

Shreya and Saffron reached out to local assisted living facilities and care homes in the Boston area to ask if it would be okay if they sent residents letters. The responses were enthusiastically positive. Demand quickly outpaced their own ability to write letters, so they decided to organize and invite others to join them.

Shreya and Saffron Patel started writing handwritten letters to seniors early in the pandemic. Photo credit: Chris Churchill

They dubbed their collective letter-writing effort Letters Against Isolation (LAI), and the idea quickly took off. What started as two sisters writing letters has now grown into an award-winning 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a simple but powerful mission:

We fight senior loneliness one letter at a time. Through handwritten messages of love, hope, and joy, our volunteer community brings seniors connection and improves their mental and physical health.

In just over two years, LAI’s 28,000 volunteers have written more than 460,000 letters to seniors at assisted living homes and care facilities in seven countries—the US, Canada, Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa and Israel. Efforts have earned co-founder Shreya the prestigious Diana Award, an honor granted by the British government that recognizes young people who are working to improve the lives of others.

Anyone can sign up to write letters, and the Patels make use of Meta tools to help connect their network of volunteers. For instance, the Letters Against Isolation Facebook Group has connected over 2,000 members around the world who share ideas, experiences and photos of the handwritten letters they write. LAI has also partnered with companies, corporations, schools, churches and non-profit organizations to ensure lonely seniors get tangible reminders that people are thinking about them.

The Patels have organized the Anne Granville Stamp Fund, a donation program that helps provide postage stamps for LAI letter-writers, enabling more volunteers to participate. People are also encouraged to organize group events to create a large batch of letters at one time.

Posts shared in the LAI Facebook Group and their Instagram page show how much care and detail individuals put into their letters, creating colorful, cheerful cards and sharing joyful, hopeful messages that any person would be happy to receive.

The Patels tell Upworthy how impressed they've been with humanity coming together and showing kindness in difficult times, especially considering how scary everything felt early in the pandemic. "It would have been really easy for people to lean into that fear and only care for themselves. We have been struck by just how many people instead reached out and tried to do some good."

The feedback from those who work in care facilities speaks to the power of these letters.

"When I walk through the halls, I can spy letters proudly displayed around many of the residents' rooms,” said Hannah, activities director at Gadsen Health and Rehab Center. “Sometimes I'll ask about the stories behind them, and it's easy to sense how deeply personal they are to some residents."

Christine, activities director at Shepherd’s Care Foundation agrees. "It is such a pleasure to deliver your letters from all over North America (so far) to our residents. The honor of being on the receiving end of their surprise and delight when every day we get to say to each of them…‘You have mail!’ Their faces are priceless, and their hearts are so warmed by your kindness…on their behalf, my most deep and sincere gratitude."

Senior recipients have also expressed joy at getting the handwritten notes and their responses are so heartwarming.

“They really made my day,” said Florence after receiving her letters. “I enjoy them, I keep them, and I read them every day. The letters took me back to when I was a teenager receiving love letters!"

"The letters and cards made me feel very important,” said Hy, another senior. “It made me feel like someone was thinking of me."

While we’ve spent over two years battling a viral pandemic, Shreya and Saffron have helped thousands spread thoughtfulness and kindness to fight the pandemic of loneliness. What a beautiful way to connect people and for younger generations to let older folks know they are not forgotten.

Photo courtesy of Girls at Work

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Pop Culture

14 things that will remain fun no matter how old you get

Your inner child will thank you for doing at least one of these.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Swings can turn 80-year-olds into 8-year-olds in less that two seconds.

When we’re kids, fun comes so easily. You have coloring books and team sports and daily recess … so many opportunities to laugh, play and explore. As we get older, these activities get replaced by routine and responsibility (and yes, at times, survival). Adulthood, yuck.

Many of us want to have more fun, but making time for it still doesn’t come as easily as it did when we were kids—whether that’s because of guilt, a long list of other priorities or because we don’t feel it’s an age-appropriate thing to long for.

Luckily, we’ve come to realize that fun isn’t just a luxury of childhood, but really a vital aspect of living well—like reducing stress, balancing hormone levels and even improving relationships.

More and more people of all ages are letting their inner kids out to play, and the feelings are delightfully infectious.

You might be wanting to instill a little more childlike wonder into your own life, and not sure where to start. Never fear, the internet is here. Reddit user SetsunaSaigami asked people, “What always remains fun no matter how old you get?” People’s (surprisingly profound) answers were great reminders that no matter how complex our lives become, simple joy will always be important.

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All images provided by Adewole Adamson

It begins with more inclusive conversations at a patient level

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Adewole Adamson, MD, of the University of Texas, Austin, aims to create more equity in health care by gathering data from more diverse populations by using artificial intelligence (AI), a type of machine learning. Dr. Adamson’s work is funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization committed to advancing health equity through research priorities, programs and services for groups who have been marginalized.

Melanoma became a particular focus for Dr. Adamson after meeting Avery Smith, who lost his wife—a Black woman—to the deadly disease.

melanoma,  melanoma for dark skin Avery Smith (left) and Adamson (sidenote)

This personal encounter, coupled with multiple conversations with Black dermatology patients, drove Dr. Adamson to a concerning discovery: as advanced as AI is at detecting possible skin cancers, it is heavily biased.

To understand this bias, it helps to first know how AI works in the early detection of skin cancer, which Dr. Adamson explains in his paper for the New England Journal of Medicine (paywall). The process uses computers that rely on sets of accumulated data to learn what healthy or unhealthy skin looks like and then create an algorithm to predict diagnoses based on those data sets.

This process, known as supervised learning, could lead to huge benefits in preventive care.

After all, early detection is key to better outcomes. The problem is that the data sets don’t include enough information about darker skin tones. As Adamson put it, “everything is viewed through a ‘white lens.’”

“If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” writes Adamson in a study he co-wrote with Smith (according to a story in The Atlantic). “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

Tragically, Smith’s wife was diagnosed with melanoma too late and paid the ultimate price for it. And she was not an anomaly—though the disease is more common for White patients, Black cancer patients are far more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, causing a notable disparity in survival rates between non-Hispanics whites (90%) and non-Hispanic blacks (66%).

As a computer scientist, Smith suspected this racial bias and reached out to Adamson, hoping a Black dermatologist would have more diverse data sets. Though Adamson didn’t have what Smith was initially looking for, this realization ignited a personal mission to investigate and reduce disparities.

Now, Adamson uses the knowledge gained through his years of research to help advance the fight for health equity. To him, that means not only gaining a wider array of data sets, but also having more conversations with patients to understand how socioeconomic status impacts the level and efficiency of care.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is how we help patients at the patient level,” Adamson told Upworthy. “And how can you do that without knowing exactly what barriers they face?”

american cancer society, skin cacner treatment"What matters most is how we help patients at the patient level."https://www.kellydavidsonstudio.com/

The American Cancer Society believes everyone deserves a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer—regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender identity, their disability status, or where they live. Inclusive tools and resources on the Health Equity section of their website can be found here. For more information about skin cancer, visit cancer.org/skincancer.

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via Lewis Speaks Sr. / Facebook

This article originally appeared on 02.25.21


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