After more than 50 years of marriage, the Manhattan couple faced their first-ever health crisis together during the depths of the COVID pandemic. He, a retired mathematician in his 80s, was getting lost and falling. She, a former scientist in her early 70s, struggled to figure out what was happening. An MRI revealed the cause: a brain tumor that, a specialist at NYU Langone said, “needs to be operated on—tomorrow.”
The micro-surgical procedure was successful, but it was followed by a convalescence lasting a year and a half. As he struggled, so did she, with pressure and isolation. (For privacy, they asked not to be identified by name for this story.)
Connected with clinical social workers, the two, who do not have children, regained their footing slowly but surely. One sign: he has returned to his first love—art, from memory—drawing figures reminiscent of the Italian painter Raphael. His wife calls it a tribute to the “amazing plasticity of the brain,” which in this case has been stimulated by both social contact and cognitively engaging activity.
The key source of company and intellectual engagement for the couple lately has been Andy Checo, a junior at the Silver School of Social Work who has been visiting weekly through a course called “Service Learning: Alzheimer’s Disease: Sharing the Lived Experience.” The class, which is open to all undergraduates, sends students into the homes of older adults who have exhibited early indications of dementia (though not all are experiencing Alzheimer’s) to get to know them and their caretaker. In the language of the course, the students are known as “buddies” and the person with memory loss is their “mentor.”
It’s a two-way street—a helpful, free, and sometimes long-lasting source of connection for the mentors; an education for the buddy; and a bridge across a generational divide that’s common in a society where younger people may only encounter the realities of aging through relationships with their own grandparents.
Andy asks thoughtful questions, speaking softly. He and his mentor have become friends, he said during a recent visit to their apartment, sitting on their couch. He shares meals with him and his wife, as she is an accomplished cook. Andy has also enjoyed learning about New York City history from talking with her husband.
“It’s been really nice,” Andy says, noting that opportunities for students interested in becoming clinical social workers to work with older adults have been less common in his experience than those serving disadvantaged younger people. “The weekly visits add a real-world dimension to the course,” which includes readings and guest lectures, he adds.
The Silver class is co-taught by Silver School clinical associate professor Peggy Morton in collaboration with Ann Burgunder and Thea Micolio of NYU Langone’s Alzheimer Disease Related Dementias Family Support Program. The program offers “Buddies” to older couples in situations where one of the partners shows cognitive impairment.
As they get to know older adults and their caregivers over an entire semester, students in the course are asked to reflect on their interactions through medical, psychosocial, and public and social policy lenses.
“One of the most exciting class sessions,” says Morton, “is when buddies and mentors meet each other for the first time. Having each received written information on their buddies or mentors, it is akin to a ‘blind date’ as they work out a schedule for a weekly get-together.”
The professor says students come to appreciate “the mutuality of the relationship—they learn from each other—while also developing a keen perspective on what it is like to care for someone with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.”
They also learn about the stigma around these increasingly prevalent diseases of older adulthood, and are often surprised to find out “how high-functioning, creative and interesting these adults can be in spite of cognitive impairment or memory loss,” Morton adds.
Many students in the course have only been exposed previously to older couples—outside their own family—through movies or novels.
“They learn how different the reality can be, how optimistic some older adults are, and how stressful the experience is for caregivers who must watch the progression of the disease,” Morton says.
But there are also moments of optimism and gratitude. “The thing is,” says the caregiver whom Andy visits each week, “and I’m still very surprised about it, is that my husband is fine, and I can see that he’s continuing to progress.”
For his part, her husband says “I enjoy meeting these young people,” recalling a previous buddy, a young woman enrolled in a literature class. He suggested The Divine Comedy as the topic of her required paper. They read and discussed it together.
With Andy, the mentor often talks about his past role as an expert witness who, using his mathematical skills, helped expose water pollution and campaign finance system weaknesses back in the 1970s. “I’ve also learned more than I ever expected about major city landmarks,” says the buddy with a smile.
During a recent visit, Andy watched as the caretaker purposely refrained from filling in the blanks for her husband as he haltingly attempted to remember the name of the buddy who preceded Andy with regular visits to their apartment.
And soon enough, he did remember. “I know he knows,” his wife said. “It’s all in there.”