Though she retired as an assisted living nurse three years ago, Riverside resident Denise Brennan has not forgotten the importance of connecting with some of the community’s most vulnerable individuals — senior citizens.

Closing out her career at The Woodlands at Cantata Adult Life Services in Brookfield, Brennan is all too familiar with not just the physical needs of the residents — from medication reminders to assistance with daily tasks — but also with the emotional support and friendship vital to their well-being and peace of mind. 

So when the pandemic hit and assistive facilities like Cantata enacted strict shelter-in-place protocols to protect the health of their at-risk residents and employees, Brennan knew the decision was the right one, but also came with a cost — isolation from the outside world and overwhelming anxiety. 

“I remember talking with some people at Cantata when they first went into lockdown saying, ‘I really feel for you guys. I’m just so sorry you are in the throes of this,'” she said. “I said, ‘I wish there were something I could do.'”

Stepping back into the nursing world was not in the cards for her, but Brennan still felt compelled to provide some sort of support to the residents and let them know they’re not forgotten.

That’s when she came up with a simple idea: creating greeting cards of support for the Cantata residents to help them feel less alone.

As someone who was neither an artist nor had ever made homemade greeting cards before, Brennan knew she could not take on the task alone. Since March, she has solicited help from family, friends and neighbors on Bartram Road, making cards expressing encouragement and well wishes for distribution at the facility. 

Brennan has been able to successfully spread the word about her card-making campaign, soliciting help from people through word-of-mouth and email. Since the beginning, Brennan has been able to collect enough cards to send big batches to Cantata twice a month. 

While the notes themselves include happy thoughts, well wishes and bits of prayer, they often include original drawings or photos of nature and animals. 

One of Brennan’s nieces, who is an artist, has shared professional drawings with her that she has been able to photocopy and include in cards. Brennan’s own grandchildren have included their whimsical sketches in cards. And friends and neighbors have included photos of their beloved pets or landscape scenes, such as photos from recent trips to the Garfield Park Conservatory or foliage from around the neighborhood. 

Brennan has even received cards from as far out as west suburban Glen Ellyn, where her sister, who teaches second grade, asked students to make cards for the seniors for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

In addition, Brennan and her neighbors on Bartram Road have twice assembled goody bags filled with small candies and prepackaged snacks for the Cantata residents and staff.

According to Brennan, the motive behind the continued community involvement in the project is simple — sharing a word with a stranger that no matter what, they still matter.

“So much that we’re hearing is the isolation of [seniors] and not being able to see their families, and then you hear so much that seniors are leaving this world without feeling valued,” she said. “I think that it’s important to send a message of value and engagement.”

Laima Aleksa, a social service worker at Cantata, is the person to whom Brennan delivers the batches of cards for distribution. 

Aleksa says that overwhelmingly, the sentiments from the residents and staff at Cantata has simply been joy that there’s a community of people out there rallying for them.

“Personally, I am impressed that someone who is not related to a resident in our facility would consistently spend time and creative energy to brighten all the residents’ day,” she said. “It warms my heart when I see them smile upon receiving such a gift.

Resident Patricia Ritacco says she has enjoyed receiving the cards, especially one which included a photo of the Garfield Park Conservatory and the cardmakers’ pets.

“Oh, this card reminds me — I was at the botanical gardens,” Ritacco said. “It takes me back to all the places I’ve visited. It [also] gives me joy to see other people’s pets.”

Fellow resident Diane Finch also loves the cards. Her favorite included artwork of the cartoon character Snoopy.

“It brightened my day,” Finch said.