Since 2011, Harvard College Alzheimer’s Buddies (HCAB) has paired Harvard undergraduates with nursing home residents to develop lasting friendships for the mutual benefit of residents, students, families, and caretakers. By the time Renajd Rrapi and Jennifer Tu arrived as freshmen in 2012, Alzheimer’s Buddies was the “cool new student organization,” and both aspiring geriatricians and neurobiology concentrators eagerly volunteered.
Rrapi’s family immigrated to the United States from Albania when he was five, followed, nearly a decade later, by his grandmother, who moved in with them in Philadelphia, PA. A “fish out of water,” Rrapi’s grandmother was never officially diagnosed with dementia, but their close and compassionate bond inspired his passion for intergenerational exchange and neuroscience research.
Before HCAB, Jennifer Tu toured the nursing home circuit as a volunteer pianist back home in New Orleans, LA. As a high school junior, she founded GEN2GENS, a student organization that still deploys teenagers to long-term senior care facilities throughout the city to facilitate “grand-friendships” via bingo tournaments, “Senior Proms,” talent shows, and more.
Both primed to lead social movements that benefit young and old alike, Rrapi and Tu assumed co-directorship of HCAB in 2013. That year, they oversaw a substantial expansion of the program, as HCAB doubled from 30 to 60 volunteers in order to facilitate a clinical research study and ultimately launch the organization as a national non-profit that today hosts chapters at three colleges in Massachusetts and California.
Rrapi and Tu served as undergraduate research coordinators for the study, “Intergenerational Intervention for Neuropsychiatric Symptoms and Community Involvement in Advanced Dementia Residents,” spearheaded by Michelle Joy Wang (Neurobiology ’15), and presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2015. The results of this random control trial, currently being prepared for submission, begin to confirm and quantify what Buddies always believed—that intergenerational companionship indeed improves mood and engagement among individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Since passing the torch to new HCAB directors in 2014, Rrapi and Tu continue to visit their Buddies on a weekly basis for walks in the park or piano recitals. On Sundays, Tu happily drives the van of volunteers to and from Hebrew Senior Life in Roslindale, MA. Recently appointed Executive Director of National Alzheimer’s Buddies (NAB), Rrapi plans to concentrate on NAB full-time after graduation in order to cement a non-profit infrastructure that will support Buddies chapters across the States for generations to come. Tu will defer medical school next year in order to work in Asia with the Luce Scholars program.
In the meantime, while Tu completes a Global Health and Health Policy project on mental health and religion, Rrapi is conducting his thesis research on miRNA and memory formation in Samuel Kunes’s lab. While their research is motivated by a desire to understand, alleviate, and prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, at present, as Rrapi puts it, even if “there’s no intervention that can cure this disease,” for college seniors and senior citizens alike, “something as simple as making a new friend can make a huge impact on their lives.”