In 2014, I learned that Jeffrey Robbins began a program called the Eleanor Robbins Program, in memory of his own mother. The goal of the program was to help residents in long-term care build relationships with college students. Its goal was to help the residents in long-term care with social isolation. These residents had Alzheimer’s Disease, and the program was in existence at a local long-term care facility for a few years. When I met with Jeffrey at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to discuss a possible referral. Jeffrey was the Clinical Social Worker at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the Department of Neurology Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology and a Teaching Associate in Neurology at Harvard Medical School.
The program would recruit Harvard undergraduate students to volunteer. The volunteers would meet weekly with the same resident at the skilled nursing facility for a minimum commitment of one semester. I suggested that we start the program at Springhouse Senior Living in our memory support neighborhood, Allen House. My hope was that by inviting the program to our assisted living, it would give the student volunteer a more engaging experience with the resident, as residents in assisted living were higher functioning than those in long-term care. These students would be able to build meaningful and purposeful relationships with our residents.
Shortly after our initial meeting, the group was renamed, The Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies Program (HCAB). Harvard would do the recruitment of students at the beginning of the fall semester and then Springhouse Senior Living would conduct Alzheimer’s Disease training before the students met with the residents. We paired the students and residents together based on common interests.
The HCAB initiative encourages students to take the mindset of a friend rather than of a care provider, to learn about the resident’s past and passions, and to establish real friendships. This interaction not only provides residents with a unique outlet but also provides students with a formative experience and formal training on this devastating disease. These students bring their experiences and life stories of being young in a fast-moving lifestyle. The residents bring experiences 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 ones by all the skills and memories they have lost, a student comes in and sees 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.