Anikka K Jeffries

Anikka K Jeffries with her late great-grandmother, Mary Keenon.

A kind heart and a great-grandmother propelled Anikka K. Jeffries on her career path in gerontology.

The Gilbert woman, who is studying social work at the Arizona State University, chose the subject after being her great-grandmother Mary Keenon’s main caregiver until she died at age 95 in 2018.

She saw firsthand how elderly people become lonely in care homes.

 The situation has worsened considerably in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, with virtual chats, window visits and restricted in-person visits becoming the norm. 

Now, she has created a pen pal program that enables individuals in care homes and hospice houses to communicate with others via letters. 

“Many of them do not have family visits very often,” Jeffries said. “I like to hope that these letters brighten their day and that they feel like they have a support system surrounding them.”

Jeffries, who graduated from the Chandler private high-school called Tri-City Christian Academy, reached out to more than 25 care facilities and heard back from four nursing homes and one hospice.

She posted on Facebook asking for people who are interested in becoming a pen pal with an elderly person and heard from more than 150 individuals. 

She chose 100 because she felt she could only deal with that many. In matching them she is careful not to offend or upset anyone.

“I asked the elderly person and the writer what their likes, hobbies, and interests were. I try to match everyone with someone they would actually like talking to. I also do not want to match someone who is against politics or religion with someone who is very into those things,” she said.

 So far, she has paired around 50, taking time from her busy student schedule to work about an hour a day. 

Jeffries said she was surprised at the number of replies she got in response to her post on Facebook. 

Most people who replied were between 30 to 50 years of age and a few of the younger individuals had their kids participate. 

“A lot of them commented that they had older relatives pass away that they were close to and were wanting to connect with someone that would remind them of that person,” Jeffries said.

According to a 2016 report from National Institute on Aging, America’s 65-and-over population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050.

The report also noted that people are living longer, but that does not necessarily mean that they are living healthier. 

Jeffries understands that communication is key to a better aging process. 

Her great-grandmother died of Lewy-Body Dementia after being in in-home hospice for the last year of her life. 

With help from her grandmother and mom, Jeffries she brought her from Globe to Mesa so they could take care of her better. 

With help of nurses and CNAs, Jeffries took care of her until she passed. “She and I were best friends and she is the main reason I choose to go into social work,” she said.

Jeffries plans to graduate in summer 2021 and go on to a master’s in gerontology. For leisure, she plays the piano, sings and entertains her friends in the backyard. She loves to travel and Greece is high up on her list of places to visit.

“I like to learn about other cultures and attend many events pertaining to that,” she said. 

She also cares for a Great Dane puppy named Tinsel. 

To help with this project, you may contact Anikka Jeffries at akjeffri@asu.edu.