When I traveled to Florida and moved in with my parents for a week following knee replacement surgery for my 82-year-old mother, I got a chance to observe the rhythms of their daily life.
One surprise was the importance of the daily mail.
My parents live on the fourth floor of an oceanside condo, with their mailbox located on the first floor by the elevator. The letter carrier typically arrives early in the afternoon, and shortly after lunch, the mail chat begins.
"Go check the mail."
"I'll bring up the mail while I'm out."
"Anything in the mail?"
I watched with a twinge of guilt. While I'd regularly written to my parents when I went off to college in the '70s, the only time I'd put a stamp on an envelope and addressed it to them in recent years was when I sent cards for their birthdays, Mother's Day and Father's Day.
But seeing how much the mail meant to them, I resolved to do a better job at filling their mailbox, to make sure that more than junk and bills would be delivered.
I decided to become their personal clipping service.
Using Google, I began searching topics that I thought would interest them, then pasted what I found into a document, printed it and popped it into the mail. Once a week, I've been folding 12 to 20 pages into an envelope and sending it south.
My parents, both retired teachers, were raised in Dayton, Ohio, and lived in several small towns before relocating to Florida two decades ago. They have lost touch with the news of some of the communities where they lived and that became an excellent source of articles that I knew would be newsworthy to them.
I used people, places and things in our shared past as search terms as I mined the internet.
I typed the name of a church we'd attended when I was in elementary school in the search engine. Up came an article from the Catholic Digest about the parish's 150th anniversary celebration; it included a history of the church and pictures of the sanctuary. Score.
My dad, now 83, worked as a high school coach, so I called up the names of some of his players from back in the day, looking for news accounts about them or websites that featured a picture. I found two attorneys, a judge, a doctor, a high school coach and a school superintendent in their number. (Score, score and score.)
It's not all news from the past. I've tracked obituaries about old neighbors, former bosses and other contemporaries; like many people in their 80s, my parents are interested in knowing who still walks the Earth and are seldom disturbed by death notices. Mom had enjoyed watching "The Crown" on my Netflix account during her recovery and relished an update about the next season, now filming. And I included a Star Tribune business story about the Twin Cities company where my daughter (their granddaughter) recently took a job.
My mother lost her vision in one eye a few years ago, so I bump everything up into a larger font and often use bold type for titles and emphasis, to make the reading comfortable for them.
Frankly, I don't find anything that they couldn't have found themselves, but Dad is not cyber-savvy and Mom mostly uses e-mail to pass on jokes. The vast offerings of the World Wide Web seem mysterious to them, and they lack my skill at digging for nuggets online.
A real estate site that I visited produced gold. I googled the addresses of the houses they had been raised in. My grandparents' house, where my father grew up and where I had spent many hours in my youth, had recently been on the market. There were room-by-room photos showing renovations in the kitchen, the front and back yard and the bathroom, complete with a picture of the clawfoot tub where my sister and I took bubble baths when we were kids.
This clipping sparked a long phone conversation about the holiday celebrations we'd enjoyed in that house, including remembering the layered Jell-O salad that my grandmother labored over for special occasions.
And that's been the unexpected value in this project. While my intention was to provide them with a fun surprise in the mail, the little packages have turned into the source of rich conversations and renewed memories.
"We talked for an hour about that church," my mother told me; she and Dad had a fond relationship with the priest there and the article took them down a Memory Lane they had never traversed.
Such conversations have provided a dividend for me, giving me the deep pleasure of getting to know these two people even better and seeing them as they were and not just as they are. Our three-way phone calls, which previously focused on daily activities and details of their aches and pains, have become more engaging for each of us.
I've learned that there's a formal name for what I'm doing. Called reminiscence therapy, it's a technique identified by psychologists to improve cognition in the elderly. Research has shown that triggering memories about the past with dementia patients can improve mood and coping skills and reduce agitation.
I know that trying to keep clutter from building up is a challenge for my parents, and I regularly remind them to toss the pages when they're done reading them.
"Oh, no!" Mom protested. "We save them. They're too interesting to throw away."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.