Science and Research

Studying Alzheimer’s as a Friend

The Buddy Program™ at Northwestern Medicine

Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders require major changes in your life, whether it’s you or someone you know who has been diagnosed. From memory loss to maintaining a sense of independence, simple tasks, like getting dressed, become more and more difficult as the disease progresses.

In addition, there are many misconceptions and negative images associated with dementia – like, “forgetfulness is just part of getting old” - but the truth is, losing the ability to find words, express thoughts and recognize your own son or daughter can be frustrating, stressful, and socially isolating.

To break down the stigma, the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine offers The Buddy Program™ in which first year medical students are paired with persons with dementia, called mentors. Buddies are matched with mentors based on common interests and spend at least four hours a month together. The student receives training about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and keeps a journal throughout the nine months.

“Our program offers first-hand personal experiences to help future doctors see beyond the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and to help them become sensitive to the effects this disease has on the lives of patients and their families,” explains Darby Morhardt, PhD, who has been pairing students and patients for over 18 years.

Personal experience inspired Sean Jenvay to apply for the program. His grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and by the time he was old enough to remember her, the disease had progressed to advanced stages. But, in the fall of 2015, he was paired with John Tompkins, a retired physicist in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who would complicate his perception and understanding of the disease.

The two immediately hit it off, sharing many similar interests, including their favorite baseball team and their native home state of California.

“Getting to know John personally was a unique and wonderful opportunity. I learned about John’s experiences with Alzheimer’s and the effects it had on his marriage. I saw how John used humor to cope,” says Sean, who is interested in the field of neurosciences.

The pair did many things together, they attended concerts in Grant Park, went to a baseball game and took walks along the trails of Fermilab, the Batavia-based particle physics lab at which John had previously worked. The Tompkins family even invited Sean to share Thanksgiving dinner. “John and his wife entered the program with their eyes forward and their arms open. They were extremely enthusiastic about being my mentor, and they provided a tremendous amount of support and guidance,” recalls Sean.
“We had so much in common. He even shared the same name as my son, so we affectionately called him ‘Sean 2.0.’ He brought a lot of sunshine to our life,” says John.

Now that Sean is in his second year of med school, and the mentorship is complete, the two remain close. John decided against repeating the program because he couldn’t imagine anyone taking Sean’s place.

Sean has come full-circle since his childhood days of trying to understand his grandmother and has become one of the buddy program’s many alumni who have continued their medical education with heightened awareness, sensitivity and empathy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. As the program enters its 20th year, Northwestern Medicine scientists continue to benefit from participants just like Sean and John to improve their quality of life programs and better serve the needs of Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers alike.

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