IG Program Spotlight: Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies

hebrewseniorlifeHebrew SeniorLife in Boston is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that has provided communities and health care for seniors, research into aging, and education for geriatric care providers since 1903. In addition to its eight senior communities in the Boston area, HSL supports wellness through in- and out-patient services and promotes research about aging via its partnership with Harvard Medical School. One way that HSL has helped to redefine aging — or “ReAge,” the term the organization has adopted — is through an intergenerational program pairing Alzheimer’s patients with students from Harvard. Robin Stewart, the Community Life Leader at HSL’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, shared with us about the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB):

1) Can you explain the genesis of the Alzheimer’s Buddy program and how the partnership with Harvard came to be?

Ryan Christ arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2009. When Ryan was younger his Great Aunt Stella lived with his family. She suffered from Alzheimer’s. Ryan wanted to start some type of program that would enable other students to build a formative relationship with an Alzheimer’s patient. He met Jeffery Robbins a LICSW at Brigham and Women Hospital who had a program in the past called the Eleanor Robbins Program. Ryan also collaborated with Dr. Zaldy Tan and Dr. Ruth Kandel at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Kandel brought Ryan to meet me and so began our partnership. Ryan had a plan to recruit Harvard undergraduate students to volunteer: The volunteers would meet weekly with the same resident at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale for a minimum commitment of one semester. Ryan, Dr. Kandel and myself worked out continued criteria which continues to develop. In 2011 the program started with 10 students and last year we had 68 students visiting weekly with our residents. The Harvard College Alzheimer Buddies operate independently, the students do their own recruitment and work with Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale to provide training for the students, support and the inclusion of staff and families.

2) The notion that both buddies and patients are going through “transitions” is an interesting one. Can you expand on that?

The students leave their homes and their families, go off to college and have to learn to navigate the world in a different way than they have prior. The students are transitioning from a teenager-hood to a young adulthood and must start making their own decisions on what direction they will take for their future. Our residents are also transitioning. They have also left their homes and families and are living in a place that is different for them. The residents and students are both going through unfamiliar times for them and finding comfort in the friendship they find with each other. The students bring their experiences and life stories of being young in a fast-moving lifestyle. The residents bring experience and some memories they can share with the students. We have had residents give advice on job interviews, medical school choices and even dating! One major benefit is that because families often view their loved one by all the skills and memories they have lost, a student comes in and sees only the resident that is there and is able to view all the skills and memories that are left. The experience often brings new insight into the resident with dementia from families.

3) Could you tell us a bit about the Symposium?

The Symposium is something the students organize on their own: They plan for the speakers and locations, and they raise funds and supporters. Advisors such as Jeff Robbins and myself help as needed. Bill Burgey from the HebrewSeniorLife Marketing Department has been a valuable guide to the students. It is a massive undertaking to present this level of speakers, but the hope is to provide information for professionals and caregivers on dementia, support systems and other topical issues. Meredith Vieira has been a big support of the Symposiums.

4) Are any expansion plans underway?

National Alzheimer Buddies, a 501(c)(3), was launched this past year with the mission of spreading Alzheimer’s Buddies to other colleges. All other colleges will be committed to having the same program as the Harvard College Alzheimer Buddies. Harvard College Alzheimer Buddies has committed to staying at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. New chapters have been started at Cal Poly Pomona in Los Angeles and at Gordon College in Massachusetts. The group plans to expand aggressively in the New England area over the next 5 years.

5) Do you have any favorite anecdotes or stories (big or small!) that you can share about the impact of the program?

There are so many stories because this program has had such an impact on the residents. Ryan’s buddy who he visited for two years while at Harvard was Sofia; she referred to Ryan as her “Harvard boyfriend.” Sofia didn’t spend much time out of her room and when she did, she was usually not happy about it. When Ryan and Sofia started visiting, he learned that she had been a doctor so he started bringing his iPad and they would view cells and diseases. Sofia would give Ryan dating advice and school advice. When Ryan graduated and went to Oxford, he would send messages and emails to Sofia. Although it has been several years, he still occasionally sends messages occasionally to her. Surprisingly, Sofia did not choose to go back to spending time in her room all the time, and now has her own little social group.  I saw Sofia at the hairdressers last week and I told her I had spoken to Ryan. Sofia said “he loves me.”  Yes he does!

At the end of the semester the students write to the families about their experience with their loved one. One young man visited a resident on the Special Care Unit who no longer spoke. The older man would sit on Sunday morning and look at the newspaper and ignore the young man who visited. But one Sunday the student decided to bring his own paper and coffee for them both. For the school year, the two of them would sit together on Sundays, read the paper together and drink coffee. The student would sometimes talk about what was going on in the paper and the resident appeared to listen. The student wrote a lovely letter about things he had learned from the man but the resident’s reaction told it all. When the year was up the student told him he would no longer be able to come visit as he was graduating and wouldn’t be in the area. For the first month, the resident would pace in front of the elevators every Sunday waiting for the student. His family was told and they started to fill the void with a renewed pleasure because prior to this they didn’t know if he was aware people were there for him.

Another story is about a woman who had no children, never married and had an elderly sister and brother. She didn’t receive visitors often because there was little family. She had a buddy and loved spending time with her. The woman carried a picture of the student with her and would show people and tell them how well the student was doing at school as though she was her own daughter. When the student graduated, she brought her mother to visit the resident. This cemented their relationship and now the resident had more “family.”

At the end of the semester we have a brunch for students, family members and residents. At the last one, one of the students was unable to attend because he was flying to England. He sent a text to another student with his picture on the plane waving to the resident and apologizing for not being able to make the brunch. The resident was so excited that he would take the time to do this for her. This is the kind of dedication the students have for the residents and the program.

Thank you, again, to Robin Stewart of HebrewSenior Life for sharing so eloquently about the Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies program. To learn more, please visit HCAB online

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