Age is just a number: Brandeis students find companionship with elders

female student with long blond hair and denim jacket looks at letters with elderly woman in nightgownPhoto/Mutiara Carney '22

Companions to Elders coordinator Olivia Spelman '21 and her companion, Margaret, look through Margaret's old family letters and scrapbooks.

The powerful friendships formed through Companions to Elders prove that age truly is just a number. 

One of the oldest organizations in Waltham Group, the university’s student-run volunteer network, is Companions to Elders or C2E. Through this community involvement program, Brandeis students are paired with senior citizens living in Waltham to spend time with them in meaningful ways. 

One of the best interruptions from daily routine for senior citizens in assisted living communities is having visitors. But If they do not have family living nearby and rarely receive visitors, they may find themselves interacting with the same few people every day. Similarly, we college students are isolated in our own way: we live in a bubble inhabited only by other young intellectuals with like-minded goals. Companions to Elders bridges this gap by bringing these two distinct groups together, allowing Brandeis students to create a family away from home.

By spending an hour and a half each week with a local senior citizen, volunteers brighten the days of their elderly companions while creating lasting memories with them. C2E coordinator Renee Silver said, “We are able to create a relationship where we see them as a mentor as well as a friend.” Coordinator Olivia Spelman, whose companion is Margaret, confirmed this by remarking that all of her friends look forward to weekly stories about Margaret’s life, as well as her frequent words of wisdom. “It’s easy to think you know everything when you’re at my age,” Spelman said, “but I always come away feeling like I’ve learned a lot. During the week I often find myself thinking, ‘What would Margaret do right now?’”

female students in blue Waltham Group t-shirts stand with arms around each other

This semester's Companions to Elders coordinators from left to right: Renee Silver '22, Olivia Spelman '21, Ghazal Hashemipour '20, Rebecca Albuquerque '21, and Nikki Dagen '22. They are pictured with Barbara Sternfield who works with the Jewish Family & Children's Service in Waltham.

While an hour and a half each week is a slim window of time compared to the hours students spend studying, the volunteers still see it as a welcome break from university life. To be able to kick back and play bingo, watch movies, learn new card games, or practice yoga with their companions is a welcome pause in the stressful routine of college. “It’s so easy to go through every single day just going to the library, going to class, and getting food,” Silver told me. “Once you have something else to be a part of, your time in college becomes much more purposeful.” This sentiment is shared from the other end as well. C2E Coordinator Nikki Dagen spends time with her companion Marie and Maries’s husband Tom every week. “[Companions to Elders] makes for some very happy Thursdays,” Marie told me. “It’s something to look forward to for both Tom and I. We love Nikki.”Companions to Elders currently has five different local partners participating in the program. These include nursing homes, assisted living facilities, public housing programs, and the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) where Memory Cafes are held.

In contrast to the one-on-one pairings facilitated at most of the partner facilities, Memory Cafes are once-a-month volunteer opportunities that are open to all Brandeis students regardless of prior Waltham Group involvement. At Memory Cafes, citizens of Waltham and the Greater Boston area who have Alzheimer’s or dementia are welcome to come in with their families or caretakers and enjoy a community that provides support and relief.

an older man in a blue shirt gives a camera a thumbs up, with his arm around a female student and his wife, an older woman, on the right. All are seated at a table.
photo/Mutiara Carney '22

C2E Coordinator Nikki Dagen '22 pictured here with her companion Marie and her husband Tom.

They can participate in arts and crafts, group activities, and enjoy performances from local guest artists and musicians. Volunteering for the monthly “Memory Cafes” is a great way to get involved with Companions to Elders for those who are unable to volunteer weekly. 

The most remarkable aspect of the work done by Companions to Elders is their emphasis on community engagement rather than community service. The term “community service” often carries the connotation that the volunteer is bending down to serve a helpless community. C2E defies this expectation by making sure that their time spent with senior citizens is a two-way street that benefits both the students and their companions. Whether this means learning how to play shuffleboard for the first time, learning about Waltham’s history from a seasoned local, or simply having a wise and understanding listener, there is no doubt that C2E is a mind-opening experience for every volunteer. “We get just as much from hanging out with our companions as they do,” coordinator Ghazal Hashemipour said. “It’s definitely not service. It’s just us enjoying our time.”

Categories: Student Life

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