Meet Ellen and Pearl

At 9:30 AM I sped-walked to the vans that were to take me to Hebrew Senior Living for two reasons: it was starting to snow and I was excited to see my buddy, whom I haven’t seen for approximately a month due to winter break. After slightly less than twenty minutes, I walked into the building that was so familiar, but haven't been in for a seemingly like so long.

In one of the dining rooms, I spotted my buddy, Pearl, in her usual spot near the television, and I sat down to greet her. Immediately, she smiled upon seeing me, which is not unusual because she smiles at everyone she meets. She is a gentle lady with not only the prettiest, but also kindest eyes. Her wisdom mirrors her age, for she is 102 years ago, a fact I learned last year from her son.  

Last semester, after being gone for an entire summer, I visited Pearl, and she had forgotten about my previous visits. So this time, I cautiously told her my name as a way of introduction. She nodded and said, “I know that.” I was definitely relieved that she recalled who I was. Like most visits, she was eating breakfast; I chatted to her while she ate and helped her when necessary. For instance, today she was drinking orange juice, and I got refills for her two times. The nurses around are pretty busy, and it’s always nice to be able to help. Talking to Pearl is always interesting, but it does require patience because she’s hard of hearing. As a result, I often need to repeat what I say three to five times in a very loud voice--which is what I did when I told her it was snowing. She told me she didn’t realize it was snowing until I mentioned it, and she repeated, “it’s snowing” a couple times to comprehend the fact. It made me smile to see her stop chewing to gaze in wonder at all the snow. Later, I showed her pictures on my phone of the snow in Harvard Yard and in the streets of Cambridge. Despite not enjoying the snow and the cold it brings, I can’t help but realize, after this conversation, that I should spend more time appreciating things. For me, Pearl has taught me how to appreciate the things around me, value both big and small interactions with others, and treasure the time I have with those I love. 

As Pearl finished up her breakfast, she recounted the adventure she had yesterday of going to Boston in a bus with a friend. Smiling and nodding, I asked questions about what she did: apparently, she didn’t go shopping, but she did go sight-seeing. Although I knew that this incident didn’t happen--at least not yesterday--I was happy to see how delighted she was in recounting this story. During our time, we also discussed other small things ranging from the nurses to her joy of cooking. As the clock ticked to 11, the time our two vans would be leaving, I touched her arm gently telling her I had to go. Puzzled, she looked at me, asking, “why?” I explained to her, loudly and repeatedly, that I had to go back to school, and that I would be back next week. As I saw her understand, I hugged her before she kissed my cheek and I kissed hers--it was our good-bye every week that I love.

On the van I was in, there were eight volunteers, and we did a reflection session regarding our visits. In this way, we learn from the other volunteers, share best practices, and reflect to grow from our experiences. It was neat hearing out the experience other students had with their buddies ranging from playing piano to watching videos with them. Overall, everyone seemed to have a positive first visit. I’m excited to see what things this semester will bring, and to spend more time with Pearl!

Ellen Zhang is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology. She is an undergraduate researcher studying metabolic diseases at the Stem Cell Institute; Secretary of the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-run non-profit organization; and Editor-in-Chief of Prescriptions, a magazine integrating the science and humanities.

During high school, Ellen frequently volunteered at her local nursing home, and developed meaningful relationships with residents. Consequently, she joined Alzheimer’s Buddies due to her belief in the importance of human interaction to enhance the quality of one’s life. NAB has furthered her hope to pursue geriatrics in the future.

Outside of interacting with and learning from individuals ranging from younger kids to the elderly, Ellen enjoys reading and writing. In the future, Ellen hopes to pursue her interest in science and medicine as an avenue to connect with and help others.