Hi, my name is Aaron Lefkowitz, and at 16 years old, I founded Conversations to Remember. People often ask me how I got here, and why I started this.
Different people volunteer for different reasons. Some feel that it is a moral obligation to help people; others feel that they should do it, because one day they might be in need of assistance. Still, others do it because they get a sense of fulfillment seeing the joy they bring other people from their small acts, or just because their school requires them to have volunteer hours. There are many reasons, and, in the end, it’s all about the results, not the motivation. That said, it’s the motivation that keeps you coming back.
For me, my motivation comes from a few different places. The lesser of my two motivations is my deep interest in neuroscience, and, more specifically, dementia. The biggest question I have in this world, and the one I hope to one day discover the answer to is: what is the biological cause of dementia. This reason may have been what drew me towards something related to dementia, but what got me so passionate about the volunteering is when my grandmother began suffering from dementia, progressively declined, and recently passed. Living a life in which you talk to someone you love, who slowly loses their grip on reality and morphs into an unrecognizable shell of the woman she once was, is a life-altering experience that can’t be articulated. I learned of the hell that these people go through, and I learned what life inside an assisted living facility is like. Don’t get me wrong, some of those places look like 5-star resorts, but they can still be very lonely places, where people certainly don’t get as much human interaction as they want, especially with young people.
My first experience volunteering, before I’d discovered my passion for the work I do now, was for a local soup kitchen. I went there expecting to serve those less fortunate than me, and see that I was truly doing some good. When I arrived there, I was assigned to the pantry, where my task was to organize the items in there with some other volunteers. I wouldn’t say that it was a bad experience, and I know that it was a necessary task for them, but I didn’t get the fulfillment that I was expecting. Further, I realized that the good I could do there helped people, but I was quite replaceable; I did beneficial work, but if I wasn’t there, I would not have left a void. The work I do with dementia patients is more uncommon. There are very few kids, who volunteer with these sorts of people, so the effect I have is magnified and feels that much more special.
I started volunteering at a local assisted living facility last year. My ‘job’ was to interact with some of the seniors in the memory care unit, helping them with the activities that were going on. I liked this better than the work at the soup kitchen, because I could see that I was making a difference in people’s lives. Some of them did not have family, and they felt like I was there just to see them. After a few weeks of doing this, I enlisted a friend of mine to join me. My mother drove me to volunteer each week on my way home from school, and he got a ride from one of his parents whenever they were available. It isn’t easy being a teen, dependent on adults to drive you to volunteer. It requires the adult to volunteer their time to drive you, and not every teen has an adult with that flexibility.
Covid-19 brought my volunteering to an abrupt end, when the assisted living facilities shut down to all but their staff. Even families were not able to visit their loved ones. Schools went remote, and club soccer shut down too, leaving me with a lot of spare time. I don’t remember how many weeks passed before I reached out to the facility that I’d been volunteering at with a proposal: why not move my volunteer time online? They lined up a resident whom I’d known from my days on-site, and we started meeting virtually via video calls. Together, with the same friend whom I’d enlisted earlier, we’d virtually meet, read, or just talk about this resident’s life and events around the world.
Over time, I expanded this to other volunteers and other seniors at the facility. Then Dani, one of my volunteers, and now the Vice President of this organization, suggested expanding the program. I spoke with another facility, and they were interested. Over the next few weeks, I reached out to additional facilities, and additional teens. I have received a surprising amount of interest, and I could not be more excited about the potential impact that Conversations to Remember can make to the lives of people who are suffering from cognitive decline.