It all started with one.
One Lee University student visited a nursing home with some of her classmates, and, though it had not been part of her original plans, she didn’t hesitate to say yes when a resident asked her if she would be returning the next day.
Two years later, Alex Kees has since founded an “Adopt A Grandparent” program that will allow both college seniors and senior citizens to get to know and learn from each other in a new way.
The new campus club that has so far had about 60 students sign up will pair students with residents of Signature HealthCARE of Cleveland so they can visit with them on a regular basis.
Kees said she wanted other students to be able to learn the kinds of things she had learned from the women she had gotten to know there.
“They have a lot of wisdom to share,” Kees said. “It always makes my day.”
Back in June 2010, Carl Caffrey, an adjunct theology and Christian ethics professor at Lee, took his students on a volunteer outing at the nursing home, where he also serves as chaplain.
That was when Kees met the woman who would inspire her to get her peers involved in building relationships with elders.
However, she freely admitted she did not always enjoy visiting nursing homes, because it was hard to know what to say or do.
“It just always made me uncomfortable,” Kees said.
She said she grew out of that feeling as she got older and that some students might have to overcome some apprehension of their own. However, Kees said she believes they will be glad they did.
The club had its first meeting Aug. 26, and more than 70 students attended to learn more about it, not including the slate of student officers serving as the club’s leadership. Out of that, some 60 students have committed to “adopting” residents of the nursing home to visit on a regular basis, she said.
A meet-and-greet event is being planned so all the students and seniors have the chance to meet each other. From there, people will be paired together.
While most students will be considered “full-time” volunteers, meaning they will visit on a weekly basis, students who cannot visit as often can accompany those students on trips to visit their “adopted grandparents.”
What happens during those visits is up to both the student and the resident. They can sit and talk, or they can do activities together. Kees said she has known of music-loving students sharing their music with residents and students with other talents and skills sharing those with them.
“It just depends on what they enjoy,” Kees said.
As a nursing home chaplain, Caffrey said it was not uncommon for residents to feel lonely because they do not get many visitors. However, he adds he believes students’ visits might help combat negative feelings like anxiety and depression.
He said it all boils down to the importance of people having healthy relationships with other people.
“The deepest human need is to be cared about and pursued,” Caffrey said. “It just really encourages their hearts.”
Though it had not yet been determined how many residents of the 100-bed nursing home would sign up for the voluntary “Adopt A Grandparent” program, he said there had already been positive buzz around the idea. He said he had even been asked by residents’ family members “to make sure they get one of those awesome students.”
Before the student club came to be, students could still visit and “adopt” residents on their own the way Kees and some of the students who later became the club’s officers first did. What is different now is that more students will be visiting in what both Kees and Caffrey said would be a more organized way.
“The great change is that we have created a model on how to connect the student with the elder,” Caffrey said.
Kees said what the club would be doing was important to her because she thought not enough attention was being paid to older adults, though there have been a lot of opportunities to volunteer with children and young people. Caffrey echoed that sentiment, saying we live in a “performance-based society” where those who cannot contribute much are often ignored.
But what both said many young people don’t realize is that the elderly can contribute stories and advice from their life experiences.
Though the “Adopt A Grandparent” program is starting with Lee students, Caffrey said he would not mind seeing more students from other schools get involved somehow.
“We are open to seeing this model grow and include high school — and even younger — kids,” he said.
Though the senior biology major from Alpharetta, Ga., said she did not know where she would be living or work after her May graduation, Kees said she hopes the club and the relationships that will be built with residents will last a long time.
She said she was overwhelmed by the number of students who signed up during the first semester of “Adopt A Grandparent,” which she said was proof it had great things ahead of it.
“God is definitely in this,” Kees said. “It’s so much bigger than me now.”
For more information about the club, call or email Caffrey at 457-0947 or firstname.lastname@example.org or email Kees at email@example.com.