UCLA freshman Max Goodman looks forward every week to visiting with people who gather in a bungalow at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, even though they’re not in his age group and have no connection to his current studies or campus life.

They are a small group of seniors who are dealing with a cruel fate — early dementia due to Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment and other forms of dementia that cast a dark shadow over a life and leave people adrift, cut off from many opportunities for social interaction.   

Goodman is one of 19 UCLA student volunteers who break through this barrier of loneliness for three hours on Mondays and Thursdays with simple acts of companionship at a free on-campus day care for seniors, TimeOut @ UCLA. They play Monopoly with seniors, color pictures with crayons or indulge in other arts and crafts, read poetry or just enjoy a light conversation about each other’s life experiences.

“I love to talk and have conversations with the seniors who have such interesting back stories,” said the neuroscience major from Miami, Florida, who recently found out that an elderly woman he was speaking to is the niece of an illustrator for “Bambi.” “They often give me sage advice. It has also been interesting to meet the caregivers, spouses and other family members involved.”

For the past three years, UCLA students like Goodman have been volunteering at TimeOut to meet people like Jeannette Young, 86, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and enjoys meeting students and learning about their different cultures and backgrounds.

“The other day I learned a wonderful poem about the streets of L.A.,” Young said. “I think it is so wonderful that these college students give of their time for us.”

TimeOut evolved from a partnership between the Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s and the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program, a part of the UCLA Division of Geriatrics. The program is funded by the Eisner Foundation. The UCLA nurses who care for this patient population identify appropriate patients and work with Pedro Jimenez, the program’s manager, to enroll patients and their caregivers in the program.

Dr. Zaldy Tan and Pedro Jimenez

While volunteers provide these seniors with companionship and a chance to socialize, the students say they also benefit. They learn from mentors, many of whom are accomplished, retired professionals and can share their knowledge. Students, some of whom are interested in careers in gerontology, also gain experience working with older adults.

“Interacting with these seniors puts a face to the patients I hope to treat as a neuropsychologist someday,” said Goodman who has been volunteering there for six months. “And I’ve realized that the career path I want truly does have an impact.”     

Volunteer Erin Murashige, a second-year biology major from Portland, Oregon, enjoys “getting to meet a variety of people and getting to know what’s happening with them and learning about their past.” She hopes to attend medical school and says the program also enables her to meet other students and to give back.

The day care also provides a welcome respite for the patients’ caregivers, who often can benefit from a short break from the physical and emotional strains of their duties, said Dr. Zaldy Tan, a geriatrician and director of TimeOut.

“Caregivers, the unsung heroes, are often underappreciated,” said Tan, the medical director of the UCLA Alzheimer's and Dementia Care Program and assistant dean for curricular affairs at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

Carol Rosenstein, 72, whose 81-year-old husband, Irwin, was part of the first TimeOut group, found the program brought both a relief and a revelation. During one of the sessions, her husband was encouraged to play the piano.

Courtesy of Circa
UCLA student volunteer Josselyn Perez, left, plays cards with patient Ana Eng.

“It was as though Irwin was resurrected while playing the piano for the students,” Rosenstein said. So powerful was the music connection, in fact, that she came up with the idea to start a musical band, The 5th Dementia Band, comprised of young musicians and memory-loss patients.

With a waiting list of patients who want to enroll, TimeOut hopes to recruit other UCLA students to join this effort, said Jimenez, whose grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“We’re hoping to build the program so we can enroll more patients. So we’re encouraging students who would like to meet some delightful seniors to learn more about TimeOut,” he said.

The 5th Dementia Band will be giving a spring concert on Saturday, May 13, at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Find details here.