The Senior Ambassador Program Connects East Lansing’s Students and Seniors

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Photo courtesy of East Lansing Prime Time Seniors.

Water exercise classes were popular with seniors before the pandemic closed Hannah Community Center.

The City of East Lansing and Michigan State University have teamed up to connect seniors with students, aiming to engage senior citizens in the East Lansing community and help MSU students learn valuable social and professional skills.

The program offers benefits to both students and seniors at a critical moment.

In 2020, the East Lansing Age-Friendly Community Committee partnered with the MSU Social Science Scholars Program, the City’s Prime Time Seniors Program, and AgeAlive, an organization that does senior outreach and old-age education, to create the Senior Ambassador Program (SAP), a pilot outreach program designed to connect MSU students with seniors during the pandemic.

The program comes as the U.S. population is “graying” or getting older, and locally, the number of people over age 60 is expected to rise. Over the summer of 2020, residents passed the county-level Elder Persons Millage to address shortages in critical care for seniors.

But, many seniors also face isolation and loneliness, which is linked to higher rates of dementia, heart disease, stroke, and depression. SAP is an effort to curtail these realities of senior living in 2021, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only does SAP partner MSU students and local senior citizens for one-on-one meetings to combat loneliness and isolation, it also aims to draw seniors into the wider East Lansing community through civic participation and assisting with technology.

Program organizers also hope that the program will educate the wider community on senior loneliness and demonstrate the important contributions seniors can make to East Lansing. SAP also draws students into the community and provides an opportunity to show that life does not end in retirement.

So how does SAP work?

SAP partners seniors and students together in one-on-one and group Zoom sessions to facilitate friendly conversations, listen to guest speakers, and participate in other events.

The 2020 pilot program had 12 different pairings between students and seniors for one-on-one conversations. Together, the pairs have done over 70 one-to-one meetings together. The program has drawn in some international students and provided a space for partners to explore shared interests. One student volunteer told ELi that she does yoga one-on-one with her senior partner over Zoom.

Over 145 people have been enrolled in the larger Zoom classes, which include discussion groups, exercise groups, and art classes, but Emily Saxon, an MSU student in the Social Science Scholars Program who helps run SAP, says the Town and Gown events have gotten the most positive feedback.

In those events professors at MSU are brought on to Zoom calls as guest speakers, talking about a range of topics they specialize in, from history to climate change to medicine. Town and Gown events have had upwards of 40 participants for a single event.

SAP wants to get the word out and draw in more seniors and students before the program resumes in the fall of 2021.

SAP hopes that after the pandemic ends volunteers and seniors can meet in person, but in the meantime, it’s working to make seniors in East Lansing aware of what SAP has to offer and get more volunteers and seniors involved.

Getting seniors access to a computer or technical support for the online activities and events has not been an issue for SAP, said Kelly Arndt, director of the Prime-Time Seniors Program of East Lansing and coordinator for the SAP.

But SAP still faces other challenges. For Saxon, it has been reaching seniors that really need a program like SAP. Seniors with lower incomes and those in assisted living have been difficult to make aware or get involved in SAP.

Some seniors tend to rely on other communities, such as their church community, to stay active. ELi discovered in its interviews with local seniors that many do not want to depend on the government, national or local, for help. They value their independence and would rather use their local church community instead of a government program to stay in touch.

Arndt told ELi that the program has grown since last year, and now there are more seniors than volunteers. Arndt emphasizes that people of color and those with disabilities are welcomed as volunteers and participants in the program.

This story was made possible by funding from the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity Program at the Michigan State University Department of History.

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