College Students Work Against Social Isolation in Boulder County

After a childhood full of adventures with my loving grandparents, being away from them and my family added another worry to the looming move to Stanford University for my freshman year of college. My grandparents were an integral part of my upbringing. My paternal grandparents took me on hikes in the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park, followed by trips to McDonald’s for an ice cream sundae. With my maternal grandparents, we made frequent Sunday breakfast outings and sang songs while my grandfather played his organ. They taught me how to play chess, how to knit, how to bake fresh bread. In speaking with my peers at school, I realize how lucky I was to live a short car ride away from all four of my grandparents, and that my close bond with them was quite unique.

For the growing aging community of Colorado, loneliness is an underestimated challenge that many face. In Colorado residents over 65 years, more than 40% live alone (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 2015). As the harms of social isolation are growing more apparent, the need for loving human connection is greater than ever–especially with an expected 60% increase of Colorado’s 65+ population by 2030 (Colorado Health Institute, 2018). Unfortunately, the negative effects of loneliness often get overlooked in the care of our community’s seniors, especially when there are pressing physical needs. But thanks to two Stanford graduate students, new opportunities for social well-being for seniors have emerged.

“Mon Ami,” French for “my friend,” is the brainchild of Stanford graduates Joy Zhang and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha, who saw an opportunity in the intergenerational magic between old and young. Mon Ami pairs college students with senior citizens, including those who live with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The students visit seniors wherever they live to engage in activities such as puzzles, arts and crafts, or even writing a memoir. Student companions can help with technology, drive on short trips to a store or outing, or just sit and chat. The focus on mentally and socially stimulating activities rather than physical care is what makes Mon Ami unique. Its translation to “my friend” is fitting – at the core, the student is serving as a friend and companion. Mon Ami has seen these student-senior relationships flourish thanks to their online matching system that ensures a good fit. When a college student signs up as a companion, they create an online profile summarizing their interests and experience with senior citizens. Families on Mon Ami express the interests of their loved one, who will then be matched with a student companion. Once matched, companions and families can schedule visits, send messages, and share photos from each visit via the simple online system.

As a college student away from home, I can attest to the powerful motivations for visiting a senior in my community. Even just once a week visits make a huge difference. For me, visiting with 94-year-old Doris this past spring was an escape from the top-speed, go-getter mentality that exists within the Stanford bubble. Having a relationship with a grandmother figure helped me transition to life away from home and family. For Doris, it was a bright spot of fun and friendship during an otherwise lonely day at her memory care facility. And for Doris’s daughter Wendy, it was a relief knowing that her mother wasn’t alone, and that there was someone who spent time with Doris with undivided attention.

After a successful first year operating in the Bay Area, which saw over 500 students sign up as activity companions, Mon Ami is coming to Boulder County. This is where I have the unique opportunity to be apart of the launch team, now that I am home for the summer in the place that I love wholeheartedly. Since one of my grandmothers has had to move out of Colorado to be closer to her primary caregiver as her Alzheimer’s progressed, this work is very dear to my heart.

Senior social isolation needs innovative solutions. And young people have so much to learn from our aging population. Mon Ami is the perfect union of these needs, and we are so excited to be connecting college students and loved ones in Boulder County. To learn more, please visit www.monami.io/, or call 650-691-5796.

Mary Gillett is a Colorado native and Stanford undergraduate who is working on the Mon Ami launch team in Boulder County. Contact her for more information at mary.gillett@monami.io.


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