Alzheimer’s program has special meaning for Harvard student

Ryan Christ regularly visits Sofia Itkis on Sundays in the nursing home. He says the 85-year-old woman is his mentor. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Ryan Christ regularly visits Sofia Itkis on Sundays in the nursing home. He says the 85-year-old woman is his mentor. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Every Sunday, Harvard pre-med student Ryan Christ goes to a Roslindale nursing home to visit the woman he calls his mentor, an 85-year-old physician named Sofia Itkis.

Itkis advises him on everything from politics to girlfriends to careers. She tells him to make the most of his Harvard education, though she doesn’t think much of Harvard doctors. She talks about the fulfillment found in public service.

One week, though, she mentioned something Christ really took to heart. She said there were a lot of people with Alzheimer’s disease on her floor who could really use someone to talk to.

Coming from her it was particularly poignant, Christ said, since Itkis has Alzheimer’s disease herself. “I’m like, this is so meta, I can’t take it,” said Christ, an applied math major. “She has these moments of shocking lucidity.”

Christ is the founder of Harvard’s new Alzheimer’s Buddies program, a collaboration with Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston that pairs residents with Alzheimer’s and Harvard student volunteers. The students visit their buddies every Sunday, keep journals about their experiences, and get to know their families.

Though it’s hardly the only intergenerational program for dementia patients, it’s unusual in at least one way: Buddies are paired up according to their shared interests, which in many cases seems to facilitate a strong, exceptional bond. Musical buddies sing together, others dance together, read poetry, chat about cars, watch movies, or in the case of Christ and Itkis, talk science together.

“The level of commitment from the students is amazing. There is this feeling that ‘you are my friend,’ let’s just have this experience together, and everybody falls into it. . . . The residents become much more willing to engage with other people. We have one woman who really didn’t like to come out of her room, until she got her buddy. Now, it’s almost like her spirit has come alive again.”

We have one woman who really didn’t like to come out of her room, until she got her buddy. Now, it’s almost like her spirit has come alive again.

Although some of the patients are in the middle to late stages of the disease, students speak of life lessons they’ve learned from their buddies, and of meaningful friendships. “When you have a family member with dementia, you know who they were, so you really see the decline and what’s not there,” said Christ. “ That’s one of the cool things about this program. We get to see what is still there.”

Christ, who grew up in Delaware, has had a lot of experience with neurological diseases. His great-aunt Stella had Alzheimer’s. She lived with his family when he was in middle school, and Christ helped his parents take care of her.

“I got a lot out of that experience, personally seeing what really mattered at the end of someone’s life,” he said. “It’s that someone was present for them.”

One of his grandmothers had multiple sclerosis and spent years in a nursing home; he watched his grandfather visit her every day for a decade. More recently his other grandfather, whom Christ “look[s] up to as an idol,” was found to have dementia.

Seeing his family’s involvement with his relatives was “a unique perspective you don’t often get to have as a youth,” said Christ. “With Aunt Stella, I was really shocked at, wow, how important family and friends are. I thought about how, if my grandmother hadn’t had my grandfather, how horrible it would be. It’s just a real testament to how we set our priorities.”

Other college students might just have filed this tidy insight away, but not this student. “I thought, wow, this is so neat. Other people need to be aware of it,” said Christ, an endlessly energetic 20-year-old who also studies the genetics of Alzheimer’s research at Harvard Medical School, and spent last summer in Tanzania helping teach nurses how to set up electronic health records databases.

When he arrived at Harvard, he got the idea of starting a program that would bring students together with people with Alzheimer’s disease. Staff at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center agreed to sponsor it. It’s supervised by Jeffrey Robbins, a social worker in the neurology department of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Years ago, Robbins helped start a program that matched high school students with nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s. The program was named for his mother, who had the disease.

“My dad . . . noticed that whenever a young person came to a nursing home, [patients’] faces lit up,” Robbins said. “The one aspect that remains intact for these patients is the capacity to connect with someone emotionally.”

Christ decided to use the same model for Harvard students, recruiting them last fall by posting notices online and in every freshman entryway at Harvard Yard — “and there are a good 80 entryways here,” he emphasized. The program has just wrapped up its first year, with 24 students, all of whom are trained by professionals specializing in dementia.

Read the full story online at the Boston Globe. 

 

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  • Alzheimer's Buddies

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    PBHA's Harvard College Alzheimer's Buddies responds to the isolation experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease through weekly one-on-one visits with dementia patients.