Health

This Valentine's Day, Give Love to People You Don't Know

This isn't the worst year for sincerity, so reach out to people isolated in prisons, nursing homes, and long-term medical care facilities.
February 3, 2021, 4:14pm
This Valentine's Day, Give Love to People You Don't Know
Photo by Ezra Bailey via Getty Images
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When every day is every other day, minor holidays feel more noteworthy than they usually do. Even if the single, unsentimental, or low-key among us might normally avoid Valentine's Day, this year, we're basically forced to welcome any sense of novelty, distinction, social connection, and even cheer into the drab-ass anomie that we continue to endure, if we're lucky. 

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Since this holiday is about love, it's as good an occasion as any to extend care to others. "Isolation," for many incarcerated people, people in long-term medical care at hospitals, elderly people in nursing homes, and unhoused people, isn't a newfound pandemic condition. COVID-19 only worsened the social limitations and estrangements that those in institutional or unstable living conditions have already endured.

There's still time to add some verve, however muted, to someone else's St. Valentine's, even if the outreach you do takes place after the holiday itself. That can look like money, food, resources, time, and attention—or like literally sending Hallmark cards. I happen to love Valentine's Day (huge fan of chocolate, lingerie, and people), but even if you think this holiday is stupid, this year offers an opportunity to make it meaningful for someone who could use a little camaraderie right now. (Which, by the way, includes you.)

Reach out to local senior citizens, unhoused people, or anyone else who might need a little extra care where you live.

The holidays can be especially hard if you're cut off from loved ones, so if you're able to safely provide support or care to neighbors in person—or even just offer help in a way that feels more personalized, as someone they know is nearby in their community—it might mean a lot. If you're not totally sure where to get started, here's a guide to being a good neighbor in a pandemic that you can tailor to this season/holiday however it makes sense to you and those around you right now.

See if mutual aid groups in your community need support. This can mean running errands, adding fresh food and other necessities to a community fridge, and doing outreach to see what people in your area need help with; you might, for example, sign up for a regular shift delivering groceries or other necessities to people in need, and include a personalized note for the holiday (and the next one, and the next one). Many cities have mutual aid groups based in particular neighborhoods or have statewide-focused organizations that can help you set up a more local one, if you Google "your city/neighborhood + mutual aid" or look on Facebook or Nextdoor. You can also get going with longstanding traditional organizations that look out for and extend resources to neighbors, like Meals on Wheels; if you're urgently needed in your area, they might follow up with you more quickly than usual.

Send letters to incarcerated people who have signed up for pen pal programs.

When Valentine's Day is so closely associated with sending cards, you might reinterpret that practice and write to people who rarely receive mail, but might value it more than most others. There are plenty of ways to write to incarcerated people that are easy to find online, but working with groups that are led by and/or in active abolitionist support of people in prison can help you find your way as you get started.

The organization Black and Pink, for example, can put you in touch with an LGBTQ incarcerated pen pal—and the website can figure out what to talk about, how to set and respect boundaries, and why this is especially worthwhile. According to its guidelines, corresponding with someone inside isn't only about what's in the letters, but that the recipient is getting them at all: "When someone hears their name called by a prison guard during Mail Call, it is a reminder that people on the outside care about that person. It is also a message to the guards and other incarcerated people that this person has support and is not forgotten." Note that incarcerated people's mail may be monitored and/or censored whether it's outgoing or incoming—in fact, it's safe to assume that it will be. Take your and your recipient's privacy into account accordingly.

Write to an elderly person in a nursing home.

The mission behind the project Letters of Love is literally, "1. Help people to love 2. Help people feel loved 3. Sustain that love." However cornadocious that might typically seem to you, right now, it feels like a really good fit for a Valentine's Day–motivated undertaking: sending a note to an elderly person in a long-term care facility expressly to push back against social isolation. Typically, the organization asks for holiday-themed letters a month before the holiday takes place, but it accepts letters to pass on to nursing homes year-round. In this case, you won't know who the recipient is, nor provide a return mailing address—the group sees it as a way to send well wishes without pressuring the recipient to respond or feel burdened (which, fine! I don't even return texts a lot of the time, so I get it).

If you don't want to send physical mail or would prefer reciprocal correspondence, you can write a letter to a person in a nursing home through a form submission via Ready to Care; the service also allows you to put in your email or mailing address so that you can keep in touch, which isn't the case with every senior outreach program. The site's helpful FAQ suggests some things to write about ("hobbies you enjoy") as well as topics to avoid ("passwords to your internet accounts"). It also, like many other groups that organize outreach to people in assisted living, points out that when you're sending cards or letters to people you don't know, it's probably best steer clear of God, politics, and COVID-19, since the idea is to be able to have it land with anybody on the other end—and not bum them out in the process.

Be a friend to a young person in extended inpatient medical care.

One of my loved ones works with kids who have to stay in the hospital for long periods of time, and sometimes permanently. In many hospitals and long-term medical care facilities, people's activities, opportunities for socialization, and even the amount of physical space they have access to has been severely (and, sadly, necessarily) cut back due to COVID-19 precautions. This means people are lonely and bored, especially since visitation is also often subject to safety limitations.

So are valentines. My loved one told me that the schools "her kids" once attended won't send cards because the hospital has to receive them by February 10 in order to quarantine the mail for 72 hours. Since I won't be able to know their names because of patient privacy laws, I'm sending cards without names on them of neutrally fun stuff that elementary-age kids like—animals, little puzzle games, jokes, etc. If there's a children's hospital near you that might accept cards, donations, or gifts, call their main switchboard and see what the protocols are and if you can contribute. 

By and large, here are some broad guidelines: Don't send anything with glitter or sparkles; it's an eye, tracheal, and choking hazard. Don't send food. Remember that COVID might impact what you're able to give and what's most needed, so be sure to ask about specific ways to help right now. If you're not able to send things physically, but want to provide a friend to a hospitalized kid: Volunteer for Teleplay, a service that puts people together with young people in hospitals to play a game together over video chat.

Just hit up the people you know, especially if they're going through it.

Even if you have it relatively good right now, things are still a real bitch, and exhausting. If you can barely make it through the day, you don't have to embark on an all-new, extra-special Valentine’s Altruism Mission to feel close to others, though it's rad if you do and, if you can, I think you'd be glad you did. You can just send texts or emails to the people in your life, without even saying anything holiday-specific if you don't want to, to see how they're passing the time and tell each other about things that have helped you manage. If you're up to it, you can even do a video call to generally take stock and/or shoot the shit, depending on what the mood is. 

Valentine's Day is very nearly the anniversary of everyone in the U.S. being tasked with staying away from almost all other people. For some people, it's been a lot longer, and will be longer still after the pandemic's over. In every case: This isn't the worst year for sincerity, so try to have a heart.