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A group of university students in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, has been sending letters to older people who live alone to keep them in touch with others at a time when they are spending more time at home amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

The activity is aimed at preventing such people from being socially isolated.

“Communicating with others not only face to face, but via phone calls or letters is effective in reducing the risk of becoming in need of care or suffering dementia,” said an expert.

The group, called Suisui Suita, was established by undergraduate and graduate students of Osaka University, after a powerful earthquake hit the northern part of the prefecture in 2018, to help people socialize with others in a local community through disaster-prevention and other activities.

The group came up with the idea of writing letters to older people after learning that their opportunities to communicate with others at community centers and elsewhere decreased drastically after the central government declared a state of emergency over the virus crisis in April, said Hikaru Okishio, 22, a senior at the university’s Department of Human Sciences who heads the group.

In April, the group printed out letters written by seven members and sent them to some 120 older people through a social welfare council.

In one letter, Okishio wrote how she had been spending time amid the virus crisis. She explained that she had been attending classes online and trying to exercise at home on days she was not going out.

Along with words of encouragement, she included a pressed cherry blossom petal, as many people could not enjoy viewing cherry blossoms this spring.

Shoji Yamamoto, 85, who lives alone in Suita, said, “I’ve never received handwritten letters from my grandchild or daughter,” noting that he usually communicates with them through the Line messaging app.

“The warm words made me feel like I’m being looked after,” he said. Yamamoto said he has written back to the members and hopes to invite them some day to a dinner party hosted by his club of senior citizens.

From May, the group started creating a newsletter, compiling messages from members on A4 paper.

The group has also extended the area within which it distributes the newsletter, as some local residents have begun to help.

“I want people to feel at least a little happier,” Okishio said.

Masashige Saito, an associate professor at Nihon Fukushi University specializing in social welfare, said, “It may become possible to use a variety of means to prevent people from becoming socially isolated if more work related to community welfare goes online,” sparking hopes that social change could being triggered by the virus crisis.

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