Student volunteers relieve caregivers and build intergenerational friendships through new program

Students are connecting with, caring for, and learning from older adults through a new intergenerational program that also addresses Michigan’s caregiver shortage.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Students from Eastern Michigan University (EMU), Wayne State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Washtenaw Community College are connecting with, caring for, and learning from older adults through a new intergenerational program that also addresses Michigan’s caregiver shortage. The Supporting Older Adults and Caregivers Through Integrative Service Learning (SOCIAL) Program is a collaboration with Lori’s Hands, a Delaware-based nonprofit that trains college student volunteers to make weekly visits to community members living with chronic illnesses. The program is supported by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. 

More than 100 students have participated in the SOCIAL Program since it launched in January 2022. Students visit clients in Wayne and Washtenaw counties weekly to help out with grocery shopping, meal preparation, housework, and yard work. The students also help the older adults navigate community resources, such as enrolling in Meals on Wheels, and encourage them to be physically active. Most importantly, they build friendships with older adults who otherwise find themselves isolated and alone most of the time.
SOCIAL Program volunteers Keen Parra and Antonia Gitau with their client, Janet, at center.
Keen Parra, an EMU undergraduate student who plans on getting his master’s degree in social work, is one of the SOCIAL Program's student volunteers.

"I want to be a therapist for older adults," Parra says. "I wanted to learn how people needed support in their homes. The one-on-one that I get with my clients gives me a lot of practice. And I'm learning from them, too."

While family members or paid caregivers continue to provide personal care, the students also lighten the load by taking on tasks that the caregivers don't have time to address. For example, Parra and his program partner just helped his client rearrange their living room.

"A lot of big furniture pieces were in front of all of their family pictures. So, for like the past six or seven months, they weren't able to see any of their faces," Parra says. "We also moved around some of their exercise equipment. Now, they can actually exercise and work on their physical therapy when they're at home. That's been really important for them."
SOCIAL Program volunteers Antonia Gitau and Keen Parra with their client, Janet, at center.
The older adults participating in the SOCIAL Program have chronic illnesses like diabetes, pulmonary disease, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, or arthritis. Many of them are homebound.

"The SOCIAL Program checks a number of boxes in terms of being able to help more holistically," says Dr. Christina Marsack-Topolewski, associate professor at the EMU School of Social Work and principal investigator for the SOCIAL Program. "These older adults have limitations in terms of transportation and mobility. They may have limited resources and support systems. If they have caregivers, those caregivers also need some help."

Curriculum guides volunteers along their own career trajectory

Most of the student volunteers from EMU are enrolled in EMU's School of Social Work, School of Nursing, occupational therapy program, or health administration program. The SOCIAL Program fulfills internship and service-learning requirements while providing much-needed companionship to the older adults taking part.

"The SOCIAL Program offers practical, real-world experiences — augmenting what students might learn in a classroom via paper, pencil, or any kind of computer-based way," Marsack-Topolewski says. "Students get to connect with people who are living the things that they are learning about, whether that is chronic health conditions or caregiver challenges. They are getting to see clients in their home setting, which I think is different. We have many nursing students who see somebody in a hospital or in a clinic where you see a patient rather than a whole person."

Marsack-Topolewski helped develop the curriculum, handbook, and onboarding process for students volunteering with the SOCIAL Program. In addition, clinically trained social workers and nurses offer supervision, help students anticipate different scenarios that may come up, and answer questions they may have along the way. Additional training modules support students in their chosen career trajectory.
SOCIAL Program volunteers Keen Parra and Antonia Gitau with their client, Janet, at center.
"There can be a lot of benefits from this cross-generational interaction, both in terms of decreasing stigma and improving understanding across generations," says Maggie Ratnayake, program director for Lori’s Hands. "Our clients have so much lived experience. And many of our students are just starting out. That experience and wisdom is often extraordinarily welcomed."

Connections that lead to friendships

Ratnayake shares that, for the older adults, connecting with young people who have energy, enthusiasm, and vibrant lives is a source of incredible encouragement.

"As the holidays were approaching at the end of 2022, one of our clients shared that they hadn't looked forward to Christmas in years," Ratnayake says. "Because they now have students visiting them, it made them look forward to Christmas for the first time in many years."

Because the students see the clients over time, they build lasting relationships. Many students opt to keep visiting the older adults they worked with even after their time with the SOCIAL Program has ended.

"Participating in the SOCIAL Program gives both students and clients an opportunity to connect with people that they normally may not connect with and creates an opportunity for more of a friendship to develop, an equal partnership," Ratnayake says. "What we hear time and time again from our clients is that the people they're spending most of their time with are from a comparable age group. They're not getting a chance to interact with folks from younger generations. Similarly, a lot of our students are primarily spending time with their peers."

Prior to volunteering with the SOCIAL Program, Parra worked at a nursing home to get experience with older adults. However, he felt that seeing the older adults in their rooms in an institutionalized setting didn’t portray the big picture. He really wanted to learn how to relate to older adults in a home setting.

"I wanted to do something where I could really connect with the people I'm working with," he says. 

A welcome relief for caregivers

Having student volunteers handling household tasks is a huge relief for family caregivers — and it stretches the caregiving budget for clients who rely on hired help.

"Sometimes it's expensive to have a caregiver, and people can't pay for as many hours as they want, so it's really helpful for us to do unskilled tasks for this person," Parra says. "I do a lot of laundry, take the trash and recycling out, and do the dishes. You know, things pile up. And it's a lot for the caregiver. They tell us all the time that this really takes a lot off their plate."
SOCIAL Program volunteers Keen Parra and Brooklynn Wilton with their client, Tammirah, at center.
As Michigan’s population ages, more residents will experience more chronic disease — and the need for in-home support services will continue to increase.

"There's a lot of responsibility placed on informal caregivers and paying for caregiving support," Ratnayake says. "It can be expensive. There can be a significant gap between what families are able to do themselves and what they're able to afford."

For over 100 older adults in southeast Michigan, the SOCIAL Program fills that gap. Ratnayake hopes to expand the program into more Michigan communities. Marsack-Topolewski would like to see it replicated and refined for adults with intellectual developmental disabilities whose family caregivers are often aging parents.

"We're providing support while reducing social isolation and loneliness," Marsack-Topolewski says. "We're offering support, when there are family caregivers, that dovetails with their needs. And we're training students in meaningful ways — in ways that they can really start to take concepts, principles, and theoretical understanding and apply it and see it in real life."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at or

Photos courtesy of Lori's Hands.
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