“My classmates and I are helping seniors combat loneliness”: This U of T neuroscience student puts the care in health care

“My classmates and I are helping seniors combat loneliness”: This U of T neuroscience student puts the care in health care

Rowaida Hussein and some of her fellow students started SAGE (Student Association for Geriatric Empowerment) last May. They hold Zoom sessions with seniors in long-term care, chatting, singing, and just generally putting smiles on faces. 

—As told to Isabel B. Slone

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“When I heard about all the Covid outbreaks in long-term care homes, I was finishing my final year at U of T studying neuroscience, and I’d recently taken a course on dementia. I wanted to use the knowledge I had. In May, I co-founded SAGE—Student Association for Geriatric Empowerment—with some fellow students. Our mission was to connect with seniors and staff in long-term care.

“We started out small, like getting coffee and pastry donations for long-term care workers. Another student in my dementia course, Vanessa Rezai-Stevens, came up with the idea for companion calls, where students chat with seniors on Zoom to help stave off loneliness. Since the beginning of August, we’ve facilitated more than 50 calls at the O’Neill Centre, and we’re hoping to add more LTC facilities to our roster.

“There have been a lot of heartwarming moments during these calls. One resident, whose first language was Mandarin, got on Zoom with a student who also spoke it. The way these two strangers connected, smiling and singing in their native language, was a moment of joy completely outside the pandemic. We also matched one musically inclined volunteer with a resident who was a jazz fan, and they would talk for upwards of an hour about the concerts they’d seen across the city. Staff said residents’ moods were noticeably better: some people with dementia would even remember the name of the person they’d been speaking with a week earlier.

“We’ve also started a pen pal initiative to connect with seniors. I wrote a letter introducing myself and some of the hobbies I’ve picked up during the pandemic, like drawing and cooking. I don’t know who will receive the letter, so I tried to keep it pretty open-ended. I hope whoever reads it decides to write back so we can get to know each other a little better.

“For a long time, I lived in blissful ignorance about the issues that exist in long-term care. SAGE helps me feel like I’m making a bit of a difference in what seems like a hopeless situation. The feedback from staff and residents has been so touching, motivating me to keep expanding the project. This experience is something I will carry with me into my career as well. I’ve always wanted to work in health care; SAGE has allowed me to explore the “care” side of things.”