The idea for a program that would pair older, cognitively impaired volunteers with patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia came to social worker Felicia Greenfield after she saw how tough it was for one of her clients to find a volunteer opportunity.

Greenfield is director for clinical research operations and care programs at the Penn Memory Center, which treats and studies people with a variety of memory problems. She knows that having "meaningful engagement in life" yields benefits for older people, including better mood and thinking.

"Work is how a lot of people get that need met," she said. Volunteering can also help, and professionals at her center often recommend it for patients and their family members.

One of Greenfield's clients had worked as a kindergarten teacher and social worker helping young children.  She had mild dementia and was anxious about her symptoms.  Greenfield thought she would enjoy volunteering at CHOP. With Greenfield's help, the woman made it through the bureaucratic application process and got an interview.

But the volunteer coordinator, who no longer works there, thought she was "a little off." She was turned down.

Disappointed, Greenfield started thinking about what would help people with early signs of dementia become successful intergenerational volunteers.  The result was a collaboration between the memory center and CHOP that made it possible for Leslie Wolff, who has mild cognitive impairment, to entertain patients in a CHOP outpatient office in South Philadelphia this month with hand puppets he calls Rufus and Blewy.

Leslie Wolff uses puppets Rufus (left) and Blewy to talk with Jacob Taylor, 9.
William Thomas Cain
Leslie Wolff uses puppets Rufus (left) and Blewy to talk with Jacob Taylor, 9.

Wolff, 78, says the Tuesday afternoons he spends with the kids make him feel good. "I love the kids' reactions," he said, "but I also like the fact that I'm kind of a proponent of giving back. It's an attitude that we're here to help each other."

Wolff was a patient at CHOP when he was a child after he was hit by a car. He was in a coma for several days. He went on to own a marketing company and worked with Joe Frazier near the end of the boxer's life.

As a volunteer, Wolff worked the crowded waiting room at Broad and Morris Streets like a networking pro and a grandpa who has put on many a puppet show for relatives and neighborhood kids. He smiled at parents, smiled bigger at babies, and used the puppets to break the ice with older kids. He bent to eye level for most and even dropped all the way to the floor to amuse one energetic toddler. He was proud that he could stand back up.

He also volunteers at a center that helps people who are starting small businesses.

The memory center program, which started in the spring, is open to its patients as well as caregivers and study participants whose brains work normally. So far, there are three working volunteers and two more in the pipeline. It can take a month to meet all of CHOP's requirements, which include background checks. Two of the volunteers have memory problems. The memory center helps them with their paperwork and assigns someone to supervise so they don't create any extra work for CHOP staff.

Wolff likes the puppets, but others may read or color with the kids. "Sometimes we'll have a volunteer and all the kids will be surrounding them," said Megan Fucci, a clinical social worker with the memory center who helps out at CHOP.

She said the volunteers are proud of their work. "They really enjoy working with the kids and seeing their faces light up," she said. "I hear all the time, 'I wish I could take pictures,' because they want to remember it."

She thinks it's good for both the adults and the kids to interact with someone from a different generation.

Greenfield said that the first client she wanted to help was never able to volunteer. Her dementia has progressed and she couldn't handle it now. "She doesn't even know that she was the inspiration," Greenfield said.

Leslie Wolff draws the attention of Hasan Sturgis, 1.
William Thomas Cain
Leslie Wolff draws the attention of Hasan Sturgis, 1.