Senior and student matches help ease isolation

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By VLADISLAVA SUKHANOVSKAYA 
Capital News Service

LANSING — A new project is connecting Michigan senior citizens living in assisted care facilities with university students who have shared interests.

Emily Lerner and Rachel Alessio at the University of Michigan started the Perfect Pair as a virtual project when the pandemic peaked in May 2020. 

Lerner, then a student, was volunteering at a senior community called  Brookdale Ann Arbor when she noticed the lack of connections and of interest in the life of some of the residents. She wanted to start a project to help them, and Alessio joined her.

Lerner works full time at AmeriCorps and Alessio works as a physician’s dictation assistant at Michigan Spine and Brain Surgeons. At the same time, they developed the Perfect Pair project.

“I have a great-grandmother in an assisted living community,” Alessio said. “She had seven children and she had a visitor every single day. She is an anomaly.

“Talking to residents, Emily picked up on a lot of them feeling a sense of isolation and disconnection from passions and hobbies — things that they liked to do prior to their transition into assisted living,” Alessio said.

The pandemic exacerbated feelings of isolation, and the Perfect Pair helps seniors create meaningful connections so they have friends to talk to every week, Alessio said.

The Perfect Pair provides participants with supplies for joint activities. If the senior and the student want a watercolor master class, volunteers collect brushes, paints, and paper and send it to participants, Alessio said.

The organization offers a range of activities including reading poems, creating birthday cards, planting seeds, trivia, chair yoga and museum tours, according to its site. Pairs also have dinners together and go to malls. 

One senior in the program from Ann Arbor is paired with Madison Daminato, a student and the president of the chapter of the Perfect Pair at the University of Michigan.

They share an interest in the outdoors, meditation and Detroit. The woman rarely goes outside now, but she used to backpack a lot.

“The major impact for me was physically,” said the woman, whose first name is Mary. “At my age you need to keep moving around and be active.

“I did notice a beginning impairment in my cognitive ability too. I am glad to report that once I got back to the circulation again it seems to be OK now,” she said.

The relationship was especially important during the pandemic when it was too cold to go outside, Mary said. Instead, she visited with her partner and her family and taught people meditation remotely using phone and Zoom meetings. 

The pandemic hit senior people in assisted living facilities hard, said Dr. Raza Haque, director of the Geriatrics Department of Family Medicine at Michigan State University. They stayed isolated in their rooms and were not able to talk to families and friends in person.

Cold weather in winter limited them even more: Seniors couldn’t stay for a long time outside of buildings.

People with dementia do not fully understand the pandemic and why their family can’t visit them, Haque said. And it is an especially hard time for people with terminal conditions in hospices.

“We have had several occasions when people were dealing with terminal conditions and couldn’t be with their families,” Haque said.

“They were standing outside the window in the winter and saying goodbye. It was very difficult because you can’t even hold hands,” Haque said.

Even with the availability of vaccinations, assisted living facilities still restrict visitors. 

“Visitors have to be tested when they are coming. If one person tests positive, everybody gets locked in their rooms.” 

Other common barriers to communication are health limitations such as vision and hearing loss.

Also, some seniors are not ready to create new connections.

To encourage them, the Perfect Pair sends every person in the facility cards and cakes from time to time. Right after one such campaign in the spring, the project received 10 more participants from assisted living facilities.

Even with these limitations, the Perfect Pair project organized live meetings of 15 pairs, Alessio said.

Now the project has about 30 seniors in Michigan and more than 150 volunteers. It works with six assisted living facilities in Ann Arbor and several others in Farmington Hills and Northville.

Also, the project has established connections with two more facilities in East Lansing, Alessio said. The project has chapters in Michigan State University and Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

In addition, the Perfect Pair may soon work with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Alessio said. 

To get in touch with the Perfect Pair, visit www.perfectpair.org