Business & Real Estate

Bonjour, Mon Ami: Stanford graduates bring senior companionship model to Los Altos


Photo courtesy of Mon Ami
Co-founder Madeline Dangerfield-Cha assists retired Stanford professor Ralph with writing his memoir.

Two Stanford University business school graduates believed in their company’s senior companionship model so much that they advertised themselves as the first to pilot it on Craigslist and Nextdoor. Their strategy worked, and now they have expanded to Los Altos.

Co-founders Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang launched Mon Ami, or “my friend” in French, less than a year ago. The online service matches seniors with college students who visit them once or twice a week for two to three hours at a time. The students don’t act as caretakers, but rather as friends who are there to help with mentally stimulating activities such as games, walks or even writing a memoir.

The business partners took an unorthodox route to jump-start Mon Ami, Dangerfield admitted, but after conducting research with more than 100 families and seniors, they discovered that they did not want to replicate any previous attempts at curbing older adults’ loneliness. They wanted to replicate themselves.

The women studied several models that fused all generations, including bringing seniors together with preschoolers for instruction and partnering well-functioning seniors with older seniors for welfare checks – a program inspired by Mitchell Besser’s AgeWell model, for which Zhang helped train participants. In the end, they arrived at their ideal companionship model: pairing young adults with seniors.

“We wanted young people that wanted to be there, that are energetic and kind and refreshing, in a way,” Dangerfield-Cha said.

The co-founders come from different but complementary backgrounds. Dangerfield-Cha studied middle-school education as an undergraduate and worked in digital marketing; Zhang had a longtime interest in dementia and hospice settings. Dangerfield-Cha had a passion for working with young people; Zhang saw the plight of the underserved senior popula- tion.

A discussion around the campfire on an unofficial Stanford trip to Lake Tahoe served as an “aha” moment for the duo: There was a way to combine their mutual interests and compatible skill sets and involve both of the populations they longed to serve.

“It was like love at first sight,” Dangerfield-Cha joked.

Activity companions

Mon Ami’s college students apply, undergo vetting via a criminal background database and are interviewed by the co-founders before they are hired. The service fee for families interested in setting up a relationship with a student is $25 per hour, and the students are paid $20 per hour.

So far, students that filter in come from eight Bay Area colleges.

Dangerfield-Cha expected pushback for charging for a service often provided through volunteer work by churches and not-for-profit organizations. Instead, she found relatives flooded with relief that a more consistent, legitimate resource was available to seniors.

While aging seniors benefit from Mon Ami, people of any age dealing with dementia, Parkinson’s disease or other developmental disabilities are eligible to be matched with a college companion.

Dangerfield-Cha and Zhang are interested in opening up the demographics of who can be a companion, but that is a long-term goal. As they work to build trust, they have discovered that the college population is the most accepted by seniors and their families.

The community of caretaking family members is important to the Mon Ami co-founders, too; eventually they hope to offer a way for families who use the service to connect with one another through a support network.

‘Soul nourishment’

Mon Ami has between 20-30 monthly active relationships in the Bay Area, with the service available to those on the Peninsula and in San Jose, San Francisco and Berkeley. They’re aiming for gradual growth, Dangerfield-Cha said. Hundreds of visits have been scheduled, and each college student/senior pairing has sustained itself due to Mon Ami’s meticulous matching.

“We take in emotional relationships and interests and all the components of what someone loves and find someone who we think is really suited to them,” Dangerfield-Cha said. “Finding those mutual appreciations so that none of it feels like work (means) that the biggest gift that we give is matching (seniors) with someone who just really wants to be there, and the fact that they are paid is just a bonus that adds to that reliability.”

Dangerfield-Cha and Zhang had the hardest time finding a pairing for their first Los Altos client, Cyrus, a senior who needs help with his technology from a college student who speaks Farsi. It’s hard to find a young person who speaks Farsi these days, Dangerfield-Cha noted, but Mon Ami found someone who was born and raised in the same region of Iran as Cyrus.

Mon Ami also received a call from an interested party in Los Altos Hills and is working to find that senior an activity companion as well.

While the activities are designed to improve the seniors’ cognitive and physical skills, they often boost their emotional state as well.

“I was just talking to one of our companions yesterday and she described it as her ‘spiritual gym experience,’” Dangerfield-Cha said. “She told me, ‘Of course I can go to the gym to work out my physical form, but getting to meet people who have very different life experiences than myself and showing me the breadth of the world that I’m entering is soul nourishment.’”

For more information on Mon Ami, call 691-5796 or visit hellomonami.com.

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