A game of checkers. A live violin performance. A thoughtful conversation. For most, these might seem like small pleasures. But for Alzheimer’s patients, they can make a world of difference.
Yale Alzheimer’s Buddies (YAB), a Dwight Hall student-led member group, utilizes these activities to make a difference in residents’ lives. YAB pairs patients with dementia in local care facilities with student volunteers for weekly visits where volunteers engage and bond with the residents through individual and group activities aimed at alleviating the isolation residents often experience. Some of these activities include playing board games, listening, having conversations, performing live music, and creating arts and crafts together.
Rianna Raghunandan ’26, one of this year’s Co-Presidents, reflected on how these seemingly small actions and time commitments can have an unexpectedly profound impact on residents. At first, the visits can feel as if they make little difference, like “they’re just there, and you’re there.” But sometimes, volunteers get a hint of how much patients perceive, though they may not be able to consistently express it. With one resident, Rianna would visit weekly and play a game of checkers — a simple action, at first thought — until he mentioned that he had no one to play with until the volunteers showed up. “It’s just a game of checkers for an hour, and I keep on losing, but it makes him happy,” Rianna emphasized.
When she was not having individual conversations, Rianna would bring her violin and play music for everyone, prompting some patients to come out of their rooms to listen. The presence of volunteers generated a sense of community and warmth at the facility that is otherwise absent.
This kind of emotional comfort and companionship is especially significant for patients with Alzheimer’s, who can frequently feel isolated by their struggle to communicate. In her experience volunteering, Sarah Feng ’25, also a YAB Co-President, noticed that many patients developed speech pathologies that made expressing themselves more difficult. “I think that residents don’t always feel they have the space to speak because it’s harder for them than it is for us,” she noted. Because of this, communication requires ample patience and time.
Unfortunately, nurses are often so busy and overloaded with responsibilities focused on tending to physical needs that they aren’t able to dedicate the time and energy to other kinds of interactions. As Sarah remarks, “It’s hard to expect nurses to both address patients’ physical needs and care for their mental, spiritual, and psychological well-being.” This is exactly where volunteers step in – “to listen and provide a safe space for residents to feel like they have a canvas to project their thoughts upon.” Alzheimer’s Buddies fills this critical gap by empowering students to form closer relationships with patients. With a platform for self-expression, residents can regain parts of themselves that may have been forgotten.
The club attracts a wide variety of students with a range of academic interests, all of whom are invested in service. Sarah came to Yale as an intended English major. She knew she was interested in dementia after reading an article in The New Yorker titled “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care,” which describes a care facility in Ohio that recreates the 1920s for their patients to help them feel less disoriented and more familiar with their surroundings. Drawn in by the ethical and scientific questions surrounding this treatment method, Sarah joined Alzheimer’s Buddies to gain personal experience with patients and better understand “what memory loss looked like in action and how it affected relationships and people’s self-expression over time.” Impacted by the residents’ stories, by her sophomore year she had switched her major to a double major in Neuroscience and Humanities.
Rianna had a different path: she knew she wanted to gain clinical experience working with patients but was surprised at how important of a social experience the club became, building relationships with both the residents and her fellow club members.
Together as Co-Presidents, Sarah and Rianna want to foster this sense of community within the club by hosting more social events outside of volunteer hours. They have both noticed how club members have bonded over their anecdotes and meaningful experiences, and hope to continue this culture in the coming year. As part of a new initiative, they are also seeking to start the Looking Glass Project – an effort where volunteers build a narrative of patients’ lives and recreate their stories, thereby helping preserve the patients’ legacies.
They have already started enacting change within the club by extending volunteer hours to the summertime, an opportunity that was not previously available. Sarah described the motivation behind this decision as one designed to give back to the community. When Rianna brought up this idea to the director of the West Haven Center care facility, the director immediately expressed her excitement. “I could tell that she wanted the extra help over the summer.”
Thus, residents and volunteers share a reciprocal relationship through which they exercise and expand their own understandings of self-expression. A simple game of checkers develops a new meaning as an act of communication and compassion. In this way, Alzheimer’s Buddies serves as a medium of deep connection.