Having volunteered in assisted living facilities for more than three years, University of Michigan alum Emily Lerner said she noticed it was a challenge for senior residents to connect with their passions and the world beyond their facility.
“Well before COVID, a lot of families stopped coming to visit,” Lerner said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “And, on top of that, activities-wise, it’s a lot of bingo and ice cream socials. As fun as that can be, not every single person becomes 85 and wants to do bingo over and over. A lot of the residents were just getting a little bit antsy and feeling like they had lost any sort of connection to the outside world.”
Throughout her college career, Lerner thought about whether she could do anything to solve this engagement problem in assisted living facilities. After graduating last spring into a pandemic and economic recession, she said she found there was an increasingly urgent need for a solution, and she had the time to act.
In the few months since its creation, Perfect Pair has recruited more than 100 students, partnered with five assisted living facilities across southeast Michigan and formed five internal committees to work on issues such as fundraising and programming.
Lerner, as the organization’s executive director, is working to further grow Perfect Pair and prepare it for a post-pandemic world. She said she is hoping to form a chapter of the organization at Michigan State University in the next year and a half, and she has applied for 501(c)(3) status so Perfect Pair can operate as a tax-exempt nonprofit.
When the pandemic subsides, students will carpool to senior facilities for activities, which Lerner hopes will help engage residents who aren’t as technologically savvy or just prefer in-person interaction.
LSA sophomore Melanie Esterine, a Perfect Pair member, said she joined the organization last fall so she could build a strong connection with her pair, especially during the pandemic.
“I just thought it was so beautiful that this club was focusing on still getting them that human interaction, even if it is virtual,” Esterine said.
Perfect Pair tailors matches between students and residents by conducting preliminary questionnaires about their interests. Esterine said her match, Enid, used to be an English professor at the University, and the two bonded over their interests in reading, art and their hometown of New York City.
“I already had a copy of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and I had told (Enid) in our first meeting just as an introduction that that’s what I was reading at the moment,” Esterine said. “And she was like, ‘That’d be so great if we could read it together.’ So then Perfect Pair also provided her with the copy, and then we read it together. And when we finished it, we came back and discussed.”
In addition to fulfilling individualized requests for supplies, Perfect Pair sends activity boxes to all students and residents so they can engage in activities like painting, planting and letter-writing over Zoom.
Norma Aunins, a resident at Brecon Village Independent Living, said she decided to join Perfect Pair because she previously had talked with students on Facebook and wanted to try something new.
“It was a way to continue having contact with the outside world because it gets kind of closed in around here during this pandemic,” Aunins said. “I feel like I’m contributing to something.”
Aunins said her match, Alexandria, shares interests in medicine and animals, and their chats help her keep up with younger generations.
“I enjoy her personality,” Aunins said. “We seem to have a similar sense of humor and a lot of interests. This past week, she put on the screen a crossword puzzle, and we worked together. She being young got some answers that I never would have come up with, and me being the old lady of the crew … came up with a lot of other ones. So we really enjoyed that.”
Aunins highlighted that residents and students alike benefit from the interactions.
“I would highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest,” Aunins said. “It gives you contact with the outside world, it gives (students) something to do, where they’re contributing, and you also are contributing to their life experiences. So the interaction is great.”
Even though participating in the program isn’t a big-time commitment, Esterine said it has made a positive impact on her life.
“I feel like it’s added, as cheesy as this sounds, a friend or family member, just because Enid is so, so sweet,” Esterine said. “I genuinely enjoy speaking to her, I’ve learned so much from her and I’m just so inspired by her.”
Daily Staff Reporter Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.