Every Tuesday, no matter what is happening that day, University of Michigan student Madison Ebstein has a date with 74 year-old Paulette, who lives in a memory care facility in Ann Arbor.
Consistency is key for the relationship. Paulette has dementia, and following a routine helps retain muscle memory and provides her with a sense of independence and comfort.
Since January, Ebstein and Paulette meet virtually once a week for about an hour to chat, share stories, have fun and talk about one of their common passions: cats.
"She tells me all kinds of stories, and while sometimes they can be a little difficult to follow, she is always so enthusiastic to answer any questions I have and will go off on such long tangents explaining anything I want to know,” said Ebstein, who has five pets of her own.
"I have a cat, Duncan, living in my apartment on campus, and Paulette loves cats, and seeing her face light up when she watches Duncan run around my room or sit in front of the Zoom camera with me is such a special feeling.”
Ebstein and Paulette are a perfect pair. They were matched after a rigorous process by Perfect Pair , an organization created by U-M students and alumni that fosters one-on-one connections between seniors at assisted living facilities and college students.
"I wanted to volunteer and thought that I might be able to make an impact on a resident but I truly had no idea how meaningful and impactful the program would become to me as well,” said Ebstein, who is majoring in biology, health, and society.
Recently before being matched with Paulette, Ebstein lost her grandma, who also had dementia.
"Being able to meet with Paulette in a way makes me feel like I am still connected with my grandma and able to give back to this community, which is something I am super grateful for and really appreciate,” she said.
Founded about a year ago by Emily Lerner, a U-M graduate, the organization currently has 45 matches, about 100 college student volunteers and six partner communities in Ann Arbor, Farmington and Northville. The seniors’ ages range from the late 60s to 90s.
Throughout high school and her four years at Michigan, Lerner volunteered at local assisted living communities. During this time, she noticed many families didn’t visit their elders, who were lonely and, in many cases, had lost consistent connections with people. She also witnessed the lack of personalized interactions due to the more general activities offered by facilities.
Last May, Lerner began planning for the new organization, together with nine other U-M students. In the following months, the students put in lots of work, focusing on establishing meaningful, personalized connections between the residents and college students.
"Our program is innovative. It builds one-on-one connections between generations that would have never met outside of the program,” Lerner said. "It empowers both the resident and the student to get connected to what they care about. As a result, healthier and happier elderly and young adults.”
To be able to efficiently support the residents they serve, the program offers a great array of activities, from canvas painting, watercolor, embroidery coloring and scrapbooking to book clubs, poetry, card games, chair yoga, stretching and letter writing.
"Our friends are delighted to share their experiences and stories after their sessions,” said Cassie Starback, director of life enrichment at Brecon Village, a partner organization. "Pairs are engaged through art, conversation and poetry. Our friends feel there is a sense of giving back to the younger generation through these virtual interactions, through sharing life stories and words of wisdom.”
The U-M/Brecon Village partnership began last fall during a challenging time, when their community was unable to receive in-person visits from family or gather in large groups due to COVID restrictions. There are three ongoing pairs there that have been engaging weekly since November 2020.
"Our partnership aligns well with our philosophy, which aims to build genuine relationships between staff members and residents to strengthen meaningful interactions,” Starback said.
For the future, Lerner hopes to start in-person sessions as soon as the situation allows and see the Perfect Pair program spread to other college campuses across the U.S. Recently, Michigan State University has officially started recruiting for a new chapter.
"It has been incredible to watch the seniors that I had worked with for so long, being able to find someone you know they can count on, someone they care about and someone that’s advocating for them in a very personal way,” Lerner said.
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