The Danish Home of Chicago is resurrecting an old practice to address a new challenge.
Since the pandemic has prohibited residents of the boutique senior living community in Norwood Park from visiting with the volunteers they’re used to seeing on a regular basis, they’re exchanging cards and letters with them instead – a good, old-fashioned pen pal program, snail mail and all.
About a quarter of the residents of The Danish Home have chosen to participate in the program that was established by Chris O’Donnell, a board member of The Danish Home’s Women’s Auxiliary. Each is matched with a pen pal from outside the home.
Over 200 members strong, the 63-year-old Women’s Auxiliary is a group of local women whose primary purpose is to interact with residents and augment their activities and programs.
“My [resident] pen pal is great! She’s very responsive. She sends me notes, holiday cards, and includes me in the newsy letter she writes out about life at The Danish Home,” said Chris Haxager, a member of both the Danish Association and Women’s Auxiliary boards. “Reading it fills me with such joy; her life seems so full, even during a pandemic. It makes me so proud of The Danish Home!”
In so-called “normal” times, the Women’s Auxiliary hosts monthly onsite birthday parties, Sunday coffees, special luncheons, and helps staff and pay for resident events and outings. They fund and help lead all the residents’ games and prizes, amounting to over $200 per month. They are also one of the driving forces behind such major annual events as The Danish Home’s summer and fall festivals.
For decades, donning the red and white colors of the Danish flag, these women have cheerfully served the frikadeller for which Denmark is known and made the homeland’s signature bakery items and open-faced sandwiches. Donating over $10,000 in a regular year to The Danish Home, they have raised both money and spirits.
“We’re going to continue our relationships with residents. We want them to know we’re thinking of them and that we’re still here for them,” said Chris Haxager.
In addition to the pen pal program that was started in response to the pandemic, the Auxiliary sends residents a handmade pop-up card (crafted by Haxager’s daughter) to enjoy at the birthday parties that are currently closed to outside visitors. They also continue to mail each resident a handmade greeting every month and give them cards and monetary gifts for their birthdays and Valentine’s Day.
Commitment to residents is particularly robust among volunteers, including women, men and youngsters, because many of them have family ties to The Danish Home.
Chris Haxager’s father, Erik, was a resident of The Danish Home. “He went from saying he was content to being truly happy there,” she said. “He’d say ‘I have it so good here.’ When I thanked the staff for making him feel special, they said it was because he was special.” Chris added that the staff even created an “Erik’s Office” plaque in the dining room for her father, who rose earlier than most for breakfast.
Stories like these are woven into the life fabric of many close to The Danish Home. It is the desire to give back and continue the legacy of care and kindness that keeps them there.