Generations connect: U-M students establish strong ties, fight loneliness
When Bobbie Jean Gill and Lizzy Rueppel finally met in person, they had ice cream together, shared a long conversation and discovered new common passions.
It was in an “Ice Cream Sunday” event at the Hillside Terrace Senior Living, and Rueppel, a University of Michigan public health student, spent a couple of hours with her after months of virtual meetings.
“Even if I hadn’t seen her through the computer, I think I would have known her, just by the way she acted,” Gill said. “She had a big smile on her face. We had ice cream together, walked and chatted. She visited my apartment and saw all the babies’ stuff I have around because of my great-grandchildren.”
Gill and Rueppel 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.
The duo has been connected since the beginning of summer. In the last month, they started meeting once a week, in person, every Wednesday at 4 p.m.
“The day we meet is by far my favorite time of week,” Rueppel said. “I love being able to meet in person. I feel that our relationship has grown and we are even closer now that we get to know each other more personally without the barriers that come with zoom.”
At each gathering, they made new discoveries of common passions and values.
“We’re both extroverts. We both love to talk. We both have big families,” Rueppel said. “I love hearing about her family and I share about mine. We also both like artwork, we like to color, to travel. We’ve talked about our travels a couple of times and I really do learn a lot from all the things she has to share.”
The one-on-one connections program
Founded in summer 2020 by Emily Lerner, a U-M graduate, with other students, the organization has over 52 matches, about 100 college student volunteers and seven partner communities in Ann Arbor, Saline, 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.
In May 2020, 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.
How does Perfect Pair actually match students with seniors?
For nine months, all the meetings were virtual. Now, many student-senior pairs have the opportunity to meet in person. This has allowed the relationships built over Zoom to flourish, with pairs able to do in-person activities like cook or take walks together and share more pieces of their lives with one another.
“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 seniors 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.
Another successful match
Every Tuesday, U-M student Madison Ebstein has an in-person date with 74-year-old Adeline, who lives in a memory care facility in Ann Arbor. They share laughs, stories, have fun and talk about one of their common passions: cats.
From the beginning, since their first virtual meetings in January, consistency has been key for the relationship. Adeline—fictitious name to preserve her identity—has dementia, and following a routine helps retain muscle memory and provides her with a sense of independence and comfort.
“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 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.
Cassie Starback, director of life enrichment at partner organization Brecon Village, says “our friends are delighted to share their experiences and stories after their sessions.”
“Pairs are engaged through art, conversation and poetry,” she said. “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.
“Our partnership aligns well with our philosophy, which aims to build genuine relationships between staff members and residents to strengthen meaningful interactions,” Starback said.
Good ideas catch on
Besides U-M, Perfect Pair is also located at Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin and Drexel University in Philadelphia. The goal is to spread the program to other colleges and universities across the U.S.
Lerner will attend medical school next year, with the hopes of becoming a geriatric physician. She plans to continue to run Perfect Pair, alongside advocating for seniors in their health care and in health policy.
“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.
Rueppel also hopes to go to medical school down the road.
“I feel that creating these connections, especially with people of different generations, is really important to me as a growing professional,” she said. “I genuinely love speaking to Bobbie Jean and I love creating a new connection that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This is a really unique program that fosters those mentorships and relationships.”
Gill looks forward to continuing their Perfect Pair relationship even after Rueppel graduates from U-M.
“I hope to live long enough that I will be able to see her fulfill her dreams,” she said.