Companionship that spans generations and reduces isolation for seniors

Every Monday, Milla, a patient at the Penn Memory Center, sits at a laptop in her home, virtually “hanging out” with Emily, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite having memory issues from dementia, she remembers her buddy from week to week. Emily often brings her dog to the virtual visits and Milla enjoys saying hello.

Senior citizen sitting in a chair by the window using an iPad.

“I’m at the house working but I can hear them laughing and talking,” said Milla’s niece. “It makes me feel good that she has this good time for an hour every week. They really connected.”

This is thanks to Weekly Smile, a partnership between Penn Memory Center (PMC) and Temple University that is virtually helping to fill a social interaction need for the elderly that COVID has intensified.

Like many of today’s virtual support programs, Weekly Smile evolved from an in-person program, Time Out, a program coordinated in partnership by PMC and the Intergenerational Center at Temple University. The Intergenerational Center, part of the Temple University College of Education and Human Development, created Time Out in 1986 to connect college students with older adults in their homes, providing up to 10 hours of companionship and engagement each week, while giving caregivers a well-deserved break.

When COVID came and made social distancing necessary for safety, students could no longer visit patient’s homes, which brought the program to a halt. But it didn’t end the collaboration. Instead, Megan Kalafsky, program and research coordinator at PMC and JT Kendall, program coordinator at the Intergenerational Center, with the help of an advisory council of students and caregivers, quickly turned it into something new, and safe. Within a month of stopping the in-home Time Out program, Weekly Smile—an offshoot of Time Out—was up and running. Volunteers in the Time Out program includes students from Penn, Temple, and other schools in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The virtual sessions help both young and old. “Isolation has exacerbated the cognitive deficits that many of the older adults have—the change of routine and lack of stimulation,” Kalafsky says. “And it’s important for students as well. They’re also feeling isolated. They don’t have the social opportunities that they did to meet new people, from different backgrounds.” Weekly Smile provides that, but with another generation.  To make the connection easy, virtual meetings can be done via phone or computer; it’s not dependent on access to a particular technology.  

This story is by Sally Sapega. Read more at Penn Medicine News.