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Oak students’ efforts lift spirits of seniors in local health center

Punhal Chaudry
Courtesy of Dr. Aifra Ahmed

Naiel Chaudry shows off a room filled with Joy Boxes, collections of customized cards and games sent to local seniors from community members.

The coronavirus and its social-distancing implications have left many people lonely and isolated from their loved ones. That includes several seniors living at the Grant Cuesta Sub-Acute and Rehabilitation Center, who are not allowed to have visitors amid the pandemic.

“I have been working at the nursing home for three years now and have witnessed firsthand the toll this shelter-in-place order has taken on the residents’ morale and motivation, especially due to limited visitors and group activities,” said Dr. Aifra Ahmed, an internist who lives in Los Altos.

When Ahmed told her children, Naiel and Punhal Chaudry, about the situation, they wanted to help lift the spirits of those living there. Naiel, entering sixth grade at Oak Avenue School, and Punhal, entering fourth grade, sent the seniors 92 personalized Joy Boxes containing individualized cards and games, and they also gathered volunteers to stage virtual performances to entertain the residents.

Naiel said a quote by the late Mr. Rogers motivated him to take action: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Naiel came up with the idea for the Joy Boxes with the goal of “bringing joy (to the residents) during this difficult time,” he said. The family originally considered sending every resident an identical Joy Box, but because each senior has different capabilities, Naiel said they soon realized personalized Joy Boxes were the best option.

“It was much more meaningful than just giving them something that we don’t know if they like,” he said.
Haydee Segubiense, the center’s activities coordinator, was a huge help in making the project a success, Naiel said. Because Segubiense spends so much time with the residents, she knew which hobbies they enjoyed.

After Ahmed posted the Joy Box project on the social network Nextdoor, she said neighbors were eager to sign up to create Joy Boxes for the seniors through a website Naiel created. The Joy Boxes were delivered to every resident of the center, on June 2.

Positive feedback

According to Ahmed, the Joy Boxes delighted the residents. She recalled a 65-year-old man who had been at the center for months
expressing his gratitude by saying, “This is the most thoughtful thing that anyone has done for me in the long four months that I have been here.”
A 92-year-old woman who is on end-of-life-care received a box with CDs of her favorite opera music, Ahmed said.
“Her face lit up with joy,” the doctor recounted. “(She told me), ‘Oh, I love these songs. My daughter used to sing for me. Thank you so much.’ She wouldn’t stop crying.”

When a 70-year-old woman who is in an isolated room and loves bingo opened her box, she did a little “happy dance” while lying in bed, Ahmed said, and then said, “I can’t wait to read all these books and play bingo again. I can’t believe someone would do this for me.”

Virtual entertainment

After the coronavirus pandemic forced the center to cancel live entertainment, Punhal last month organized virtual performances for the seniors Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Each musical performance runs approximately 15 minutes.

“What inspired me was my mom telling me stories about how the patients were lonely,” Punhal said. “I just wanted to cheer them up, because they were really lonely.”

Grant Cuesta residents watch the performances on iPads that Segubiense has placed throughout the center. Performers volunteer their time, using SignUpGenius.com to fill open slots. People from all over the world, including in Arizona, Virginia and Abu Dhabi, have donated their time to perform, according to Punhal.

Ahmed said the seniors were touched by the musical performances and thanked Punhal for her efforts.
“Punhal, thank you for coming into my room and brightening my day,” a resident at Grant Cuesta Sub-Acute Rehabilitation Center told her. “One of the songs you sang was played on my wedding day. I am already feeling so much better – see. I am smiling. Thank you so much.”

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