The Nursing Home Card Project

An Upper West Side yoga instructor launches a program to send messages to nursing home residents isolated by the pandemic

11 Jun 2020 | 01:35

Rachel Bennett’s mom suffered from depression and PTSD, after living in D.C. during 9/11 and losing her husband in 2000. But when Bennett, who runs Rachel Bennett Yoga on the Upper West Side, visited her mom regularly from New York City, she noticed that her behavior was changing. She was leaving the milk out overnight and mailing checks that were only half-filled out. It became clear the change in her behavior was due to something new: Alzheimer’s.

Moving around the east coast and upending her life to care for her mother was taxing for Bennett, as the only child, but she had an extremely close bond with her mom. Once she realized she couldn’t do everything for her mother, she moved her into assisted living. After some time, the assisted living home informed Bennett that her mother would need around the clock care, meaning she would need to go into a nursing home. “Alzheimer’s ... it’s a disease that will only get worse and it will not get better,” Bennett said she was told. “We don’t have a cure for it.”

When the coronavirus made its way to New York, the residents of nursing homes were among of the most vulnerable of groups. “Elderly people that have preexisting medical conditions and compromised immune systems are the highest, most fragile population that we are worried about that will get COVID-19,” Bennett said.

In New York state, approximately 5,300 people who died of the virus lived in nursing homes. Because of this risk, nursing homes closed all visiting access and recreational activities were canceled. Bennett explained that without having family and friends visit or activities to keep them engaged, living in a nursing home can be extremely lonely. In cases where a resident had the virus, they would be quarantined and isolated.

Though it has been three and a half years since her mom died from Alzheimer’s, Bennett still misses her every day. Seeing what is happening to nursing homes since the shutdown makes her grateful that she was able to visit her mom as often as she could. When she did visit, she brought bright, colorful, handmade cards with her. She hung them up all over the walls and remembers how much joy they brought to her mom. When Bennett read about the nursing homes amid the pandemic, she knew what she wanted to do, and thought, “We have to send cards! We have to send cards!”

Bennett called out to her friends on social media and sent mass emails, asking friends, family and yoga students to send handmade or store-bought cards with uplifting sentiments to nursing homes. She called it the Nursing Home Card Project.

“The response was incredibly profound and powerful,” she said. “I didn’t have to work hard to corral.” Participants started by sending the cards to Rutland Nursing Home, which has now received approximately 400 cards of their 500-card goal, which would be enough for every resident to get one.

After the first six weeks, the responses to the Nursing Home Card Project quieted down, and Bennett hopes there will be a new wave of participation, since nursing homes are still unable to receive visitors or resume their regular activities. She encourages people to send cards to a nursing home that is close to their heart, or where a loved one is staying. Details for how to send them can be found on the project’s website. “We underestimate what a small token of love can give,” she said.

After the crisis is over, Bennett hopes the Nursing Home Card Project can live on. “What I’m hoping that can happen is that communities can take this and maybe, implement this into their class plans, for instance, schools, both private and public,” she said, noting that it would also be a great practice for churches and synagogues.

“The reality is we all will get old. We will probably all get sick at some point,” Bennett said. “I think that it’s important to remember that everything we do, I think, also will be done to us. So just be the person that we’d want to be around us.”

“We underestimate what a small token of love can give.” Rachel Bennett of the Nursing Home Card Project