Thought Leadership

Writing a letter

By Colin Walls

A wise person once said “Getting old is hard, but the alternative is worse.” and I am not about to argue with that. There are days when I feel old, but most of the time I regard my age is just a number. I have a busy, fulfilling life and I’m mostly healthy. For this, I am grateful. In 2014 I attended no less than 3 funerals. One was for my elderly mother-in-law; she’s was in her 90s – that was OK. The other two were friends in their early 60s and that was not OK. It made me think about how I live my life and spend my time.

It also made me think about my Dad …

In many ways, my Dad’s life has been very similar to my own. He spent all his working life doing something that he enjoyed [he was an architect] and pursued other interests and raised a family. His wife [my mother] died when he was about 50 and he went on to remarry some years later. In due course he retired [I plan to do that at some point] and spent many busy years enjoying that retirement with my stepmother. That was fine until he reached about 80.

From then on, he has been beset with health challenges. He has been diabetic for decades and took that in his stride. But lately he has had heart problems, the initial signs of Parkinson’s and his eyesight is failing. The result is that he and my stepmother have very limited horizons. They rarely leave their apartment and have an army of carers who come in to address their needs. All they really have left are their memories of happier days. I was wondering what I could do to help to enrich their lives.

My conclusion was: not much. Obviously I try to visit them from time to time, sometimes taking one of my daughters, my sister or another relative. But they are 2 hours from where I live, so this is not something that I can do every week. I then hit upon an idea: I would write them a letter each week. So that is what I do. When I says “write”, I obviously mean “type” – my handwriting is appalling. I can print it in large type so that they can read it [22 point seems to do the job at the moment].

The way I work is that, over the course of the week, I make a note of anything that I do or any news of interest. Then, usually on Sunday, I write the whole letter at one sitting. It usually comes out to be around 1000 words, which, with such large type, makes for a lot of pages. I sometimes add in some photographs or maybe postcards, if I have been somewhere interesting. On Monday, I print it out and pop it in the mail, so they almost always receive it on Tuesday morning. Occasionally, if I am traveling or on vacation, the schedule changes or I miss a letter, in which case they get a longer one the next week.

I quite enjoy writing the letters. It is like writing a journal – it is therapeutic to review what one has been doing over the last week. I understand that the letters have taken on something of a life of their own. I hear from their carers that everyone gets to read them. They have a file in which they are all stored. One day, my stepmother told me that they find the letters rather exhausting. I was concerned that they were too long, but she explained that it was simply that I documented a very busy life. I reminded her that, at my age, they had had a similar lifestyle. She agreed and said I should keep doing what I do.

I am very pleased that I started this project, as it does make a difference to their lives – a small difference, perhaps, but every little helps. If you have a relative or a friend, who might have their lives enriched just a little by having a small share of yours, maybe you would like to consider adopting this habit. Writing and sending a letter is not hard or expensive. It does not need to be every week. But it can make a difference.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at