Project which finds pen pals to unite lonely people in Yorkshire quadruples in size

It is seen by many as a fading art in the digital age.

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But now writing letters has provided the chance to bridge the gap between generations and help combat the loneliness crisis that is gripping the nation.

Yesterday more than 120 penpals came face-to-face for the first time as part of the Writing Back project that connects students at the University of Leeds to the region’s older people.

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After it was featured in The Yorkshire Post, the initiative has soared in numbers. Set up by PhD graduate Dr Georgina Binnie in a bid to tackle loneliness in older people in 2014, the scheme has now more than quadrupled in size since its first year to include around 200 writers - with many of the newest participants having seen coverage of the project in the newspaper.

Initially, older participants came from organisations and community groups like St Michael’s Church in Headingley and Otley Elderly Action, but now it has expanded to include people from across Yorkshire.

The majority of the students, who are matched with penpals based on their interests, study at the university’s School of English. They include 21-year-old Ian Simpson, of Surrey, who has been writing to his penpal Joyce Aveyard, 86, for 16 months. The pair met for the first time yesterday, when a celebration event for the project was held at a church near the university.

Mr Simpson said: “I come from a rural area and when I first came to Leeds I didn’t know anyone and it’s a big city. I’ve learned a lot about the area from Joyce, who has given me recommendations of places to go, including Harewood House.

“I think it’s an important scheme on so many levels; the idea of helping to eradicate loneliness in older people and also for students who are away from home to be able to speak to someone who aren’t their friends or parents. Joyce has given me some great advice, which has helped me.”

Despite an age difference of more than 60 years, the pair are never short of topics and their letters include discussions about their families and their interest in painting. And Mrs Aveyard, who has lived in Chapel Allerton for more than 40 years, has plenty of fascinating stories about her life to tell, including the time she saw the Hindenburg airship sail over Leeds when she was six-years-old.

She said: “I have so many interests but I have always loved writing and meeting people. I sit down and think I’ll just tap out a few lines to Ian and I’m interested in what he has to say. When I receive a letter, it’s like getting a hug through the post. I save it for an opportunity to sit down quietly and enjoy reading it.

“We hope to carry on writing to each other. We get on pretty well. Apart from that, he knows my secrets”, she laughed.

Dr Binnie is hoping the project, which aims to research the impact letter writing has on loneliness, will continue to run in September. She said: “We are really keen for older Yorkshire residents to have the opportunity to take part in our scheme.”

The Yorkshire Post wants loneliness to be universally recognised as a health priority in our communities. We launched the Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign in February 2014.