Emily Lerner, Founder and Executive Director of Perfect Pair 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Organization
In October of 2020, Enid, an assisted living resident, and Melanie, a college sophomore, met on Zoom for the first time. They were paired because they both grew up in NYC, speak Spanish as their second language, participated in theatre, and love to read.
They were matched through Perfect Pair, a nonprofit I founded alongside Rachel Alessio and nine other University of Michigan students. Perfect Pair is dedicated to filling a gap in senior care by creating one-on-one connections with students and providing resources for residents to re-engage with activities they love. Perfect Pair’s first building was the same one I volunteered in for four years throughout college. Residents I deeply cared for joined the program where they have engaged in everything from learning languages and painting for the first time in years to sharing the grief of family losses or the joy of a virtual Christmas dinner with their pair.
The program works by providing seniors a one-on-one relationship with their “match,” a college volunteer. Pairs are matched based on background and interests, sharing everything from a love of art to Jewish faith. Each pair is provided with supplies to re-engage with their passions, like poetry, cooking, gardening, and more.
For Enid and Melanie, this looks like weekly meetings filled with their book club (they are currently reading The Great Gatsby), practicing Spanish, and more recently, growing basil. Enid initially joined the program because she was looking for companionship, and she now calls Melanie “a second granddaughter.” Melanie gushes about Enid, often talking to her outside of their scheduled time because she has “too much to tell her.”
Perfect Pair looks different for each pair that participates. It uniquely caters to each resident’s diverse passions. While Bernie and Daniel share a love of engineering and advocacy and compete in trivia together each week, Mary and Madison love the outdoors and yoga, and spend their meetings having deep conversations about topics like Buddhist meditation practices. Each resident and volunteer can share their passions with one another. They grow with each other through both their commonalities, which the program uses to match them, and their different lived experiences.
From both volunteer and paid experiences in assisted living, I’ve found that social isolation and feeling a lack of purpose are common among residents, as they are away from the communities they lived in for most of their lives. Seeing first-hand the adversity that residents face led me to create Perfect Pair, where each resident is carefully matched with volunteers based on similar interests. After just one year, we now serve hundreds of seniors across four college campuses, and we are looking forward to expanding further.
Perfect Pair is not just for the residents, it’s equally as important for the volunteers. “My meeting with Joan is truly the highlight of my week. With a hectic school schedule, I love getting the chance to relax and unwind with Joan whether we are painting or showing each other our family pictures. She truly means so much to me,” said Ketaki, a Perfect Pair volunteer. Ketaki was paired with Joan because they both love space (Joan worked in the space program at North American Aviation and Ketaki is part of the Michigan Aeronautical Science Association), played tennis, love the outdoors, and love to travel.
Joan shares the same sentiment about meeting with her pair. “I really enjoy being a part of Perfect Pair. Ketaki, my match, is very nice and we get along very well. She plays tennis, and I used to play tennis, and we both have the same dream of going to the moon. Together, I’ve gotten to do a lot of artwork with her, including painting California and the mountains where I’m from.”
Perfect Pair has exceeded all of my wildest dreams. It has grown into a program that connects generations and builds meaningful relationships, while empowering residents and volunteers to reconnect with art, reading, culture, religion, language, and more. Next year I will enter medical school to pursue a career in geriatric medicine, and I am excited to build upon this passion for senior care through my education and to continue to expand Perfect Pair to create more surprising friendships.