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Importance of Love Letters to the Frail Elderly (with transcript)

Janet Gallin has been producing and hosting a talk show called Love Letters Live since its inception on KUSF in 2005 and has written a column for the Examiner.com by the same title. She also leads workshops and provides consultation to private and corporate clients. Janet is very grateful in letting others shine and has been able to translate this into her life’s work.



Frank:               Well, welcome to Boomers Today. I’m your host, Frank Samson. Of course, each week we bring you important, useful information on issues facing baby boomers, which I fall right in that category. Of course, their parents and other loved ones.

And as I said, we’re getting, I think, that great support because we have wonderful guests, and we have another wonderful guest with us today. We have with us Janet Gallin, who has been producing and hosting her own talk show called Love Letters Live since its inception on KUSF in San Francisco, started in 2005, radio talk, and has written a column for the Examiner.com by the same title. She also leads workshops and provides consultation to private and corporate clients. Janet is also very grateful in letting others shine as she’s been able to translate this into her life’s work. So Janet, thank you so much for joining us on Boomers Today. I really appreciate it.

Janet Gallin:     Thank you, dear. Excuse me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about something that I know is so important in life.

Frank:               It is. I think it’s just wonderful. I want to learn, too. So tell us a little bit about love letters. What’s that’s all about? How did it start?

Janet:               Thank you. Let’s just start with what a love letter is. And this is of course all in my opinion and in my experience of many years of doing this. A love letter is your truth put to paper in the most loving and compassionate way. A love letter is your best self put to paper. And people say, “So what is your best self?” Well, here’s what I say. I say your best self is that part of you that can see the best in others and then bothers to put it on paper and mail it. And I think a love letter is something that is mailed, and it’s just received as a gift in your pile of mail.

Who should it be for? Absolutely anybody you have a wonderful thought about, a wonderful memory about. Anyone you want to invite into your life. Any apologies. They’re fabulous love letters. It’s just anything you want to say can be really under that category. Most are not romantic in my experience, although romance and just every once in a while a nice little invitation to real lust is delightful. You have to be careful what you ask for, that it’s not more than you can give.

Frank:               So when a family member contacts you and says, “I want to write this love letter,” are you’re guiding them on how to write their own love letter? How does it all work?

Janet:               Yes. Yes, very often the workshops are just that. I recently did one, and this is relevant today. I recently did a workshop on writing love letters to the dying. Now, you would think that people would find this maybe a little too grim to take part in. Well, it turns out, no, they did not. And what I know and what I see again and again and saw in this workshop, people are about to lose someone they love. This is just horrible. This is just horrible. And yet, when they started to write these love letters to people who were dying, their faces relaxed, and their fists unclenched, and their breathing started to be smoother, and they started to smile. Some people were laughing at the memory. And I’ll tell you why, because bathing in the positive does wonders. People were having a whale of a good time writing to the dying.

Frank:               And I would think that somebody who’s far apart geographically, and maybe somebody could be dying or they’re ill, and writing that letter makes them feel good because maybe they can’t be there. Is that right?

Janet:               Well, today they can’t be there.

Frank:               Right, right.

Janet:               Today, I mean-

Frank:               Especially in isolation, yeah. Right.

Janet:               We get so many of our cues from the news. And if I may, I’d like to say, I’ve watched the news like we all are right now, and I see that people in care facilities, people in … First of all, the number of deaths of people in facilities is just huge. And these people are dying alone because their families can’t come visit them. For all they know they’ve been abandoned. Some of them don’t understand why they no longer have visit.

And I will tell you that it is not, and maybe you’ve seen this, I don’t know, but it is not unheard of for a person who is very old and at the end of life, maybe a 93-year-old who’s in a care facility and think….Well, I’m going to end up crying, but that it’s not so unheard of for a person to feel, “There’s no need to go on. There is no need to go on. My life doesn’t mean anything to anyone anyway anymore.” And then suddenly the reason that they need to go on comes to them in a letter from a grandchild or a child or a friend.

And my father, who was a surgeon, used to say to his residents, “Do you not know that how a patient feels about his recovery has a great deal to do with whether or not he recovers?” The emotional side of it. And I’m not saying that this is the magic thing that everyone’s going to recover, but my goodness, you can ease the way, you can encourage. And I know that this works wonders.

Frank:               What is the length of these letters, usually?

Janet:               Such a good question. I appreciate that. The length of the letter is really you have to consider how much that person can take in. Sometimes from children, “I love you, Grandma,” “I love you, Grandpa.” Whatever your word for grandma and grandpa is, “I love you,” and sign it and send a picture. Send a picture. Have your children send a picture they drew. Send an old photograph. People relate to photographs even when they cannot remember much at all. And I have seen, and maybe you have too, I have seen people, as they take their last breath, they have passed from this earth, and they are clutching a love letter or a photograph. They’re holding it.

Frank:               And do you recommend that you coordinate with somebody to read them that love letter?

Janet:               If you have to, yes. That’s right. And I’ve done this, by the way, with my brother recently, who’s in a memory care facility. Absolutely. And it makes a difference. But can I tell you a story about children and love letters?

Frank:               I would love to hear it. Absolutely.

Janet:               For those of you who are home with your children now day after day after day, they’re learning online and they’re isolated. The truth is they are isolated from their friends. And you can learn a lot online, but the reality is that there’s a human warmth that’s missing. And however good it is, there’s something missing. And you can recapture this human warmth by writing a love letter. And I’m saying love letter, but we can say compassion. It doesn’t matter. Gratitude. Gratitude letters are love letters.

I once did a few years ago a love letters workshop with a group of five-year-olds. It was a kindergarten class. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this is going to be great.” And these are kids who have never seen any message delivered that didn’t involve thumb’s flying across a little tiny keyboard on their parents’ iPhones, and I didn’t know what this … Anyway, I go in, and I introduce myself, and I start off. There’s this Arlo Guthrie song about sending a letter, and it is a wonderful thing. I don’t know if I can find it here, but anyway, it’s essentially, “I’m going to put a stamp up right on my head and mail myself to you.”

Anyway, I’m singing this song to them because I thought, “Okay, they’re little kids and singing a song, what a nice way to start.” And I say, “I’m going to send myself to you, and a little boy, rings out loud and clear, “Not send, mail. Mail.” And the teacher said, “Aaron, that’s rude.” And I said, “No, Aaron, that is not rude. Thank you. There’s a big difference. Mailing something is critical.”

And anyway, then we went on. We had an hour, and I kind of explained what it was. I brought stationary and stickers. And these children who had … Oh, so one of them raises her hand, and she says with her little face totally crumpled, she said, “Can I write a love letter to my dead cat?” Oh, yes. Right. Then another hand goes up and the question is, “Can I write a love letter to air?” I said, “Yes, and you should because without it, you’d be,” and he says, “Dead.” That’s right. Talk about gratitude. Children are so sophisticated. Some of these kids in an hour wrote four little love letters to people. They couldn’t get enough of it. They chose the stickers, they chose the stamp because that envelope, it’s the first “here I am,” and it’s the love letter.

So when you’re home with your children, and it doesn’t matter how young really, take an hour a day for letter writing time. If an hour a day is too much, take an hour every couple of days and write a letter. Pick someone. Pick someone. And the grown-ups, too. Write a letter to someone.

And it takes a little planning. And here’s a good exercise. You take a scratch paper first, and you write down. By the way, a love letter that says, “You’re so special” doesn’t mean anything. But the reasons you’re so special mean the world. Write down everything that’s special about that person. Everything that you remember, every memory, every walk you took. When that grandma used to take you swimming. It doesn’t matter, whatever it is. Whatever it is. That she made the best chocolate chip cookies you ever had. Put it down. And when you have all these things written down, you will see there you have your love letter.

So how long it can be, it can be just, “I love you,” or it can be a page long. It’s better, I think, to send three of them than one that’s too long to absorb.

Frank:               Spread it out. Spread it out a little bit.

Janet:               Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, spread it out. We may not be able to spread it out too long but I saw today in the news, the New York Times talking about the deaths, and it says what you could do. Write condolence letters for sure. Write condolence letters to the families. But start before you need to write condolence letters.

Frank:               Yeah. And I would think it’s couple things. I mean, especially in what’s going on today, somebody might be listening to this a year from now from the time we’re doing it. But today we’re in an environment where people are isolated, so there’s certainly time to write those letters. Right?

Janet:               Yes. We have more time. That’s right. We do. But you know even when this is over and we are, God willing, back to normal, this is still important. You still are going to have your grandparents and your great-grandparents in care facilities. They may not remember much. They may feel abandoned. You can help. You can help.

Frank:               Now, I think that’s great. Today with the social media and emails, getting a letter is kind of nice, isn’t it?

Janet:               Yeah. It turns out that it’s more than kind of nice. But I got to say that email is wonderful. I’m personally addicted to it. I didn’t think I was going to want to do texting. I’m addicted to … I love it all for the immediacy. But you can’t reread a phone call. And whatever you put today on email, technology changes faster than we would need it to for certain things, and you’re not going to be able to access what it is somebody wrote to you on an email 10 years ago. That’s going to be gone. But I have letters. I have copies of letters that were written almost a hundred years ago, and Frank, they are as readable today as they were the day they were written.

Frank:               Yeah, that’s great. That’s wonderful. I come across things that even, I’m sure we all experience it, I’ve lost both my parents, but when I come across something that they wrote in their writing.

Janet:               Oh, I know. Thank you.

Frank:               Even like a recipe that my mom wrote out in her own writing. Oh, my god, I cherish that. I cherish that.

Janet:               That’s right. And handwriting is king. But a handwritten letter … And by the way, an indelible ink and good paper is still the best storage system. I have a friend and one of my guests on Love Letters talk about handwriting, which I talk about a lot. She couldn’t find her mother’s … Her mother had died when she was too young. I mean, my friend was an adult, but still, and they were very close. She couldn’t find her mother’s recipe for chicken soup. It was Pesach. And she was hysterical, and she couldn’t, and she calls her sister and, “I can’t find it.” And the sister says, “Well, I have the recipe. I’ll just send it to you.” She said, “No, no, I need the card. I need the card. I need Mommy’s handwriting.”

Frank:               Yeah. Now, that’s great. That’s great.

Janet:               That’s right. Everyone. My website is loveletters, plural, [email protected].  I also have a podcast, and many of my previous episodes are available on my website, loveletterslive.com. Every life’s episode, every one of life’s episodes has within it the seeds of a love letter to someone. Whether it’s tragic, whether it’s delightful, it’s got the seeds of a love letter. And every letter you write is your own history documented in your own hand. I just want to get back to writing from within isolation. We’re putting up with a lot, we’re experiencing things we’ve never experienced before, and I want to suggest that people who are home with children every day and spouses and sweethearts and whoever you’re allowed to be with in your own home, write love letters to the people who are just right there, but mail them so that that person gets a gift in the mail. It’s an incomparable gift.

But also, you can write one to yourself, and you should. I just got an email this morning from a Love Letters Live Guest, Mickey Smith. And he said, “I just found this letter.” He said “I’ve made it a habit over the last few years,” and I’d love to think I have something to do with it, but it doesn’t really matter, that whenever there’s something challenging about to face him or that has faced him, he writes himself a love letter to congratulate himself for getting through.

Make copies of the love letter you send. Make copies or take a cell shot, and don’t leave it on your cell phone, print it up and stick it away.

Frank:               As I understand, the guests that are featured on your podcast have written love letters to themselves, is that correct? And the podcast is about the two of you reading and exploring it?

Janet:               Well, okay. I am a fearless busybody, and I’m not afraid to reach out and invite people onto the show if I want to. I’ll reach out if I read about them in the paper or get a recommendation from a friend. Sometimes I’ll even stop people on the street if they seem interesting enough.

Frank:               Can you think any one or two of your favorites? Either your favorite interviews or your favorite love letters that you’d like to share?

Janet:               I can’t do that because out of 12, 14, whatever it is, 14 years, they are all favorites. But I will tell you one woman way in the beginning. I read about her and a Vietnamese family who had just come here, and the parents were working in a jewelry store in Sacramento. She was going to school. She was in her first year at Berkeley. Five siblings still at home. She gets a call one day. Sibling, one of the older one, is hysterical. “Mommy and daddy are dead. They’re dead.” And she just couldn’t make head or tail of this. And it turns out a gunman, a robber had walked into the jewelry store and shot them both dead.

Frank:               Oh, no.

Janet:               And here is this 19-year-old who’s got five younger siblings, and in the midst of just indescribable grief and fear and everything else, she goes to court and battles to keep all the kids so she can raise them. She doesn’t want them split up in foster homes. She wins. 19-year-old is now raising her five little siblings.

Frank:               Wow.

Janet:               And if you can go to the website and put in Trang, T-R-A-N-G, you might be able to hear her. At some point, what I always do at the 25-minute mark, I say, “Who gets your love letter today?” Listening to this woman, I could barely speak. I mean, I was so choked. And I managed to get out, “Who gets your love letter today?” Truth is, Frank, I couldn’t see one. I could see a hate letter to God, sure. I could not see a love letter. And she said without missing a beat, she said, “I want to write a love letter to my siblings to thank them.” And I said, “To thank them for what? Letting you raise them?” She said, “Yes, exactly.” She said, “In my culture we do not say these things out loud, and I need them to know.”

Frank:               Oh, that’s sweet. Yeah, very sweet. That’s a great story. Well, it’s a sad story, but a great story.

Janet:               It’s a sad story, but there are always … Every story has something enormous to teach us.

Frank:               Yeah. Anything else stand out that you could think of off the top of your head?

Janet:               Oh, gosh. So, so many. Well, okay. Joshua Abramson. I read about him or heard about him. He has taken it upon himself to make “I love you” the default greeting to replace “hello.” Interesting. So we’re sitting and we’re recording this thing, and I said, couldn’t help, but I said, “You sound like a lunatic. You know that right?” And he laughed, and he said, “Yes.” And then 10 minutes later, this is the sanest person I’ve ever spoken to maybe. He wants to do this. He took it to Washington, DC. He spoke to Congress about it. Nancy Pelosi was all over it. People know that they are no longer being civil. They know that they’re not paying enough attention to the person they’re talking to.

Frank:               Yeah. So what do you suggest to people that are listening going, “Wow, what a great idea. I want to send something right now to my grandfather or my … whoever,” what steps can you give them right now?

Janet:               Okay, good question. What I do in workshops is the first step is you get that envelope, you address it, and you stamp it before you do anything else. We’re all not so concerned about wasting 50 cents or a dollar here and there. We probably don’t even notice it very often. No one will waste that 55-cent stamp. Somehow that doesn’t get thrown away. It motivates you.

The next thing is to put down your goal just on a piece of scratch paper. The next thing is to put down every specific memory and thing that you know about this person. If this is a grandparent, what about the bravery that this grandparent showed in leaving a country that was persecuting them and coming here? What about their strength?

Before I started this, I was with a group of friends, and we went to see a woman, a close friend of ours, who was dying from stomach cancer. We walked in to find her propped up. She was the color of chalk. Her beautiful face was sunken to just the bones. And there was an emptiness there. One of one of us looked at me and said, “I wrote her a love letter. I wrote her a letter, can I read it to her?” I said, “Absolutely.”

Nancy started to read to the woman – her name was Miriam – and the letter was all about remembering all of their life together as young parents and we were working together. As she started to read it, color came back into that beautiful face, her eyes brightened, she smiled. And that letter, oddly enough, was not even a goodbye. It was a hello, and it took her back to her strongest self.

Now when you’ve written everything you need to write, or say to that person, you mail it and you stamp it. And while you’re writing to these people in old age homes and having your children write to them and having your children write to each other, you might want to write a letter to the staff who was taking care of the people at the old age home. So, in summation. Write a letter to the staff. Especially today, they’re risking their life taking care of people. You know?Write a letter to them. I’ve done a couple of these, and I’m telling you the responses I get, I feel I should not get a gold star for doing something normal. I’d like to see it all become more normal.

Frank:               And I would think you probably tell people either make a copy or take a picture of it, so at least you have it before you mail it.

Janet:               Right. Yeah, that’s what I was saying that before, because you might want to know what you said years later.

Frank:               Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Janet:               Somebody’s going to find your letters. They’re going to be in people’s bedside tables, they’re going to be in a shoe box, they’re going to be in a treasure chest, somewhere. And what you’re going to know is, from the letters you write today, you are going to know something important about the people you have written to. And you’re going to know, future generations are going to know, but they’re also going to know something about you, dear writers. They’re going to know that even in a time where you’re surrounded by fear and isolation and death, you took the time to think about someone else and say, “I love you, and I remember everything good about you.”

Frank:               I could talk to you all day about this, but unfortunately we’re out of time, so everybody check out loveletterslive.com. Janet, thank you so much for joining us on Boomers Today. I really, really appreciate it.

Janet:               Thank you for letting me talk about something that I know is so important. Thank you, dear.

Frank:               Yeah, it certainly is. And thank you, everybody, for joining us on Boomers Today. Please, please be safe out there, and we’ll talk to y’all next week.


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