Students, seniors connect through program

Dana Molina

A mutual love of a popular board game brought SESP junior Nikolai Smith and Evanston resident Ruth Locin, 91, together for friendly competitions and conversation each week.

During his first week on campus in 2005, Smith saw a flyer for Senior Connections, an Evanston program that pairs older adults in the community with volunteers. The two continued to meet weekly and Smith has kept in touch with Locin even though he is studying abroad.

“We both liked ‘Jeopardy!’ and Scrabble, so we would watch ‘Jeopardy!’, and play Scrabble, and she always brings me organic ginger ale,” Smith said.

At the end of the year, Senior Connections staff members share the biographies of older residents looking for friends and the volunteers choose who they will commit to visiting each week for a year. Of the 96 Senior Connections volunteers, 44 are Northwestern students, Senior Connections volunteer director Wendy Klinkner said. Others include mothers and children looking to “adopt” a grandparent.

“I wish there was a similar program near my grandmother, who lives in a retirement home,” Smith said. “I also value service the most when one can establish an individual relationship over a long period of time, which can be difficult for students to do, but (Senior) Connections made it possible.”

Klinkner introduces the volunteers to the seniors once they have made their choice. The two meet, generally at the senior’s home, and plan their activities, which range from walking to writing memoirs. The volunteers will also sometimes help the seniors plan their schedules or teach them to use the technology in their homes.

“It’s not one person helping a needy adult,” Klinkner said. “We value older adults and what they have contributed to the community. We bring the community to them.”

Locin has taught Smith there are only small differences between older citizens and adolescents, he said.

“Youth and others should not view them as being disconnected from the current society and from others,” Smith said. “Instead, they provide perspective on it and are more like us than I could have imagined.”

Once a student graduates and leaves the program, the senior can be paired with another volunteer. However, the relationships can be long-lasting, Klinkner said.

“If they really establish a genuine relationship, they do continue to meet with their senior,” she said. “There was a Northwestern student who got really attached to a gentleman she was visiting. After she graduated, she continued to call him and send him postcards from wherever she was. She was sending postcards almost weekly.”

Smith plans to resume his visits with Locin after he returns from studying abroad, he said. Meanwhile, his friend has been visiting her in his place.

“It truly is an amazing experience,” Smith said. “Ruth has been as much a part of my friendship base and college experience as my best friends at Northwestern.”

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