The Handwritten Release
Writing letters is almost a lost art these days. Even the event of putting pen to paper has somewhat diminished from the universal activity it once was. But before we let it go completely, let’s consider how putting pen and paper together to express our thoughts may actually benefit the writer—even if the person it’s “written to” never sees it.
Caregivers of dementia patients usually have deep feelings and strong emotions associated with the job of providing care. Their desire to communicate doesn’t fade away just because their loved one doesn’t remember who they are; quite the contrary. Our drive to communicate is a force to be reckoned with, and those feelings only intensify if the caregiver believes the opportunity for real conversation may have passed. It can be very difficult for a caregiver to deal with these emotions when there seems to be no way to actually express them. Enter the written letter.
In one of the most therapeutic actions a person can ever take, a caregiver may pick up their pen and allow it to scratch across a blank page, slowly and gently at first, taking great care to form the letters neatly as they sift through the thousands of words that make up our language, searching for just the right ones to use. But before too long, as the real caregiver emotion begins to be tapped, the hand’s muscles begin to alternately flex and relax in quick succession as letters begin forming words, then sentences, and eventually whole paragraphs in eager anticipation of that cathartic moment when all is revealed. The curtain is finally pulled back so that feelings lay vividly expressed in the stack of papers whose corners begin to curl under the weight of the ink.
So, exactly what benefit does the caregiver receive from engaging in this somewhat frenzied activity? Just this: it can be a liberating experience to write a down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred letter expressing the caregiver’s anguish, grief, irritation, frustration—and even the flood of pain brought on by the caregiver’s love for the care recipient. This kind of handwritten honesty can bring a degree of healing for the weary caregiver that’s virtually unmatched by any other therapeutic avenue; it’s also very “safe” for the writer to do this because their loved one will never see this letter, so there is no risk of causing them offense. Writing the letter can help a caregiver process their own strong emotions, and it may help them let go of negative feelings they harbor concerning their caregiving role.
As an added benefit, writing a document by hand actually helps keep the mind sharp. An article that appeared on the Neuroscience News website in March 2021 reported some interesting findings related to the study of writing by hand:
“A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates has revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.”[i]
Being able to release and process emotions as well as having a more active brain which can lead to improved memory—well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go old-school and start writing some stuff by hand immediately!