Bringing smiles to seniors one visit at a time.
    • Eugenia
    • Eugenia received visitors from Sydney Cooper Senior Smiles for many years. Her story is just one of the many successes in our organization.

Eugenia smiles

With her head hung low, eyes closed and arms crossed, 100 year-old Eugenia spends her days sitting on the couch in the lobby of Sunset Hall, an assisted living facility near Downtown Los Angeles. When Senior Smiles first started sending volunteers to visit seniors at Sunset Hall in the fall of 2002, the organization was informed that Eugenia would not need a volunteer. Having been diagnosed with an advanced case of Alzheimer's, partial blindness, and hearing difficulties, it was simply believed that Eugenia did not have the cognitive ability to relate to people anymore.

"It's just so sad," commented one resident with a slow shake of her head, "she can't hear you, she won't talk to you or anyone anymore, it's no use."

Establishing connections between two generations is the core purpose of Senior Smiles. Ignoring initial remarks, Jill Pizitz-Hochstein, founder and director of Senior Smiles, took initiative to place a volunteer with the elderly woman for every day of the week. "When someone tells me not to do something, I usually go ahead and do it," explained Pizitz-Hochstein. "This is what our organization is about, we're here to help seniors at all levels."

Each day volunteers began to come in to visit Eugenia. Some read magazines to her: fashion stories, current events, the classifieds. Volunteers also helped to orient seniors of their surroundings and time. "It's a beautiful day outside Eugenia," mentioned Rachel Marsh-Rydman, who visited Eugenia with her boyfriend Neal Rifenbark every Sunday morning. "The sun is shining and you're looking beautiful." With eyes still closed, Eugenia seemingly looked unaware of the companionship she was receiving.

Week after week, volunteers became the familiar and dependable companionship of Eugenia's life. On certain visits, multiple volunteers were present visiting other seniors, but all managed to make time to stop near Eugenia and say hello. One Sunday morning, three other volunteers accompanied Eugenia, Marsh-Rydman and Rifenbark with their own senior, Pauline, in the living room. The large crowd enticed residents to stop and chat to volunteers in the living area. Jazz music swelled from a portable compact disc player brought in by Rifenbark. Activity was at an all time high on a usually monotonous Sunday morning, and the core of it was centered around the quiet Eugenia.

Opting for an even more lively change, Marsh-Rydman, an avid and spirited student at the University of Southern California, proceeded to sing the university's fight song accompanied by the clap of the volunteers and seniors to keep tempo. "Fight on, for old 'SC! Our team fights on, to victory…" Through the song, a dramatic change in Eugenia took place. Her feet began to tap in perfect unison with the song. The elderly woman bobbed her head and lifted her eyes. With all eyes on Eugenia, she looked up and spread her lips into a large grin.

"All I could think was that she smiled!" recalled volunteer and volunteer coordinator Kieumai Vo. "We just kept singing even louder and she kept smiling. Even the staff at the facility was shocked. No one thought she responded anymore, and here she was, in tempo with the song and looking so happy."

Eugenia's responses to her volunteers increased dramatically each week. Alexis Asatourian, volunteer and volunteer coordinator noted the importance of the change, "I have found Eugenia's responsiveness to improve with each visit. She takes a keen interest in music and poetry. A woman who was believed to have lost the ability to react was responding to me."

On one occasion, Senior Smiles volunteer coordinator, Yasmin Chowdhury brought her friend along to visit Eugenia. "As we were leaving, my friend Sarah gave Eugenia a hug and asked for a kiss," explained Chowdhury. "Sarah got a huge peck on the cheek."

The volunteers who visited Eugenia established an intergenerational connection that defied age. Volunteers treated the elderly woman as a companion and friend, not as a deteriorating person well beyond the need for activity. Perhaps it was this steadfast relationship that sparked the ability for Eugenia to slowly express herself to her visitors.

Chowdhury recalled an instance when she came to Sunset Hall and stopped to greet Eugenia, who was visited by Marsh-Rydman and Rifenbark. "Rachel told me Eugenia had said 'hi' to her. I really didn't take Rachel seriously and jokingly asked Eugenia if she had in fact done so. Eugenia nodded her head to me and said, 'Yup!'" For the first time in the nearly five years since Eugenia's arrival at Sunset Hall, she was speaking with her visitors.

The strength of the link between volunteers and their seniors can often be measured without words. "As my visit was winding down, I was saying goodbye to Eugenia," remembered Asatourian. "Eugenia reached out to me and grabbed my arm, that action said a lot."

Many volunteers have come to adore Eugenia and continue to notice improvement. Most are in their twenties and in college. Two generations, with a full 80 years of separation, have learned to build a connection and understanding that many have given up on long ago. The volunteers bring about a sense of youthful energy with them, and in turn, make the seniors feel younger. The mere presence of visitors every week help to improve the lives of Eugenia and other residents alike, breaking up the monotony in the nursing home and loneliness of old age.

Seniors lose anticipation as they get older. Anticipation for new faces, new ideas and activities. The volunteers at Senior Smiles bring back the anticipation that makes life enjoyable, and more often than not, they also bring back a smile.

Therapeutic benefit of pets

Elza is a volunteer at Senior Smiles. She trots through the hallways of Bay Crest Care Center, a Torrence nursing facility, and stops to sniff the outstretched hands of seniors, allowing them to scratch her shaggy back and ears. She’s quite different from most of the other Senior Smiles volunteers because she walks on a leash, has a long tail and... is not human. But like most of the people who volunteer at nursing facilities, Elza is friendly and outgoing. Her presence causes quite a stir at the nursing home, and while a few seniors seem wary of the large10-year-old German Shephard, most smile and chat with her owner, Chelsea Edgecumb.

“It’s fun, and Elza looks forward to it now,” said Chelsea of volunteering with her dog. “At first I didn’t know if I was making an impact, but now people are expecting us, inviting us into their rooms.”

Chelsea is not the only volunteer who brings her dog to nursing homes. The Pet Therapy Program was started two months ago at Senior Smiles, and the concept has caught on quickly. Many nursing facilities now inquire about pet therapy, and the list of volunteers who bring their pets along is growing quickly.

Jill Pizitz-Hochstein, Senior Smiles Executive Director, is not at all surprised about the surge of interest in the pet therapy program. Facilities are asking for pets because “seniors miss the stimulation and love they provide. Volunteers also like to bring a pet along when volunteering and helping seniors. So it’s a win-win situation,” she said.

The pet therapy program seems to be going so well at facilities that some administrators are considering getting permanent pet residents. It has been noticed that there has been positive feedback from residents about the kanine volunteer. But even more telling is the physical response seen in patients with severe dementia. Chelsea also notices this response when she comes by with Elza. “Some of the seniors who seem really out of it will suddenly reach out and want to pet the dog. And that always amazes me,” she said.