HELPING HANDS — Winter 2007

Samantha DiBaggio (left) a sophomore chemical engineering major and Melissa Reimers, a senior majoring in biology and German, are among S.A.G.E.'s student volunteers who meet with residents of Sunrise Assisted Living facility on Saturdays. Here the enjoy a round of Yatzee® with Kitty Michaelson.

Finding Meaning in a Nursing Home

By Terri Nappier

A one-on-one conversation, a Polaroid shot with a new friend, a songfest during the holidays. These simple pleasures take on new meaning for student volunteers of the group S.A.G.E., or Service Across Generations, who meet weekly with older adults in nursing homes.

Program co-leader Glenn Kunkes says the group’s main goal is to promote social well-being among the residents. Natalie Kress, S.A.G.E.’s other co-leader, thinks the group is important particularly because there are no other groups on campus working entirely with older adults.

Last year, students met with residents of a nursing home in University City and experienced what seems to be a common problem in many nursing homes: a lack of activities.

Both Kunkes and Kress say that watching television may have been the main source of social activity for some. Kunkes, a junior psychology major with an interest in gerontology, continues: “Some of the residents may not have family or may not have family who visit often. We’d visit on Saturday mornings to encourage one-on-one interaction and to incorporate as many as possible in group activities, such as decorating the common area for holidays and creating arts and crafts. I noticed a lot of happiness while we were there.”

Asked what his favorite event was during the year, Kunkes mentions caroling door-to-door during the holidays. “The residents got excited,” he says. “Some followed us as we went around and joined in. It became like a conga line.”

Another favorite was Easter egg dyeing, which he had never done before. “We went to the rooms and offered eggs to those who were not able to participate,” Kunkes says. Jansi Gnanasekaran, A.B. ’07, the past program leader, took photos with a Polaroid camera, and students then made paper frames and gave them away. “When we came back the next week, one of the residents had the picture of us on her door along with her other prized photographs,” Kunkes continues. “It made me feel as if we meant a lot to her and, possibly by extension, to the residents as a whole.”

According to Kress, the residents also seemed to enjoy just talking one-on-one with students “about ‘back-in-the-day-when-I-was-young’ kinds of things.”

The students benefited as well. Kress, a sophomore biology major with a philosophy-neuroscience-psychology minor, says, “I think S.A.G.E.’s efforts are especially important in terms of exposing students to intergenerational relationships.”

Kress also stresses the importance of raising students’ awareness of life in an economically disadvantaged facility.

And Kunkes and Kress are no strangers to nursing homes and relationships with the elderly. Both had close ties with their grandparents, and both have suffered through the hardships of watching them decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“As I became aware of the prevalence of Alzheimer’s,” Kunkes says, “I became interested in broader gerontology issues. I currently am enrolled in a social gerontology course with Professor (Brian) Carpenter, and I feel that gerontology represents a good niche for me to help others.”

“My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s for five or six years, and I saw her in and out of various nursing homes,” Kress says. “I saw the path that she took from being fairly aware and conscious of things to not being (conscious) at all toward the end.”

Kress says that she also saw “how important human contact is, even at the end of life. That’s basically why I’m involved with S.A.G.E.”

Since last year’s facility currently is being renovated, students are establishing new relationships with staff and residents at Sunrise Assisted Living in Richmond Heights. Kunkes is excited about working with this new facility, and he has pushed back meeting times to Saturday afternoons, hoping that starting later in the day will encourage more students to volunteer.

One of the Campus Y’s 25 student groups, S.A.G.E. is looking to expand its volunteer base and to raise awareness of its existence on campus. Fifty new students expressed interest at the fall Activities Fair.

Another of the organization’s goals is to become a topic of relevance during various awareness weeks on campus.

“Right now, it’s about expanding the group,” Kunkes says. “If we get the word out and get more volunteers, our priorities will change.”

Kress concurs: “We have long-term goals of being involved in awareness weeks, maybe eventually starting an aging awareness week.”

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.