Alumni in Action: Caroline McSwain Ryskiewich ’14 G’15 on enriching the lives of senior citizens

The Elon alumna works as a life enrichment associate at a senior living community in Durham where she makes meaningful connections with residents during a time of increased isolation.

Alumni in Action

While at Elon, Caroline McSwain Ryskiewich ’14 G’15 discovered a love for assisting and bonding with senior citizens, a passion that she didn’t imagine could spark a career. Ryskiewich spent time with senior citizens throughout her time as a student during multiple practicums, internships and also as the president of Elon’s “Linking Generations” Club that paired students with senior citizens at the local assisted living community.

While pursuing a degree in media arts and entertainment – broadcast, she kept her passion close by also pursuing a minor in human service studies with a focus on senior services. Following graduation, Ryskiewich stayed an extra year to participate in the Master of Arts in Interactive Media  program. She then set off to start a career in marketing, until she later realized her true calling was working with seniors.

Ryskiewich now works as a life enrichment associate at a senior living community in Durham, North Carolina, where she makes connections that are not only meaningful for the residents, but for her as well. She recently shared a tweet sharing the connection she has made with another Elon alumna, Jane Johnson ’51:

Alumni in Action

Hey @elonuniversity! It’s so fun becoming friends with other @elonalumni like my fellow Phoenix — Jane Johnson ‘51. We met at the retirement community where she lives and I work! #PhoenixForever We tell everyone “we went to college together!”

Read below as Ryskiewich shares her experience working with senior citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: What is your job title? What do you typically do in this position?

A: I have the absolute joy and pleasure of working as a “Life Enrichment Associate” at a senior living community in Durham, N.C. It’s so incredible to see how things have come full-circle for me: I spent countless hours as an undergraduate student volunteering in the activities department at Blakey Hall Assisted Living in Elon, and now I get to spend time with seniors as my full-time job. As the department title “Life Enrichment” suggests, I’m there to help enrich the lives of the residents… whatever that may look like! I do everything from helping my residents learn how to use Facebook, to leading them in rounds of “Mental Aerobics,” to interviewing them for my in-house talk show. This week I even hosted a resident bake-off competition! Every day is different, and every day is so much fun. Although my role is to enrich their lives, it has truly been my life that has been so wildly enriched. It’s the most fulfilling and rewarding role, and every day I think to myself “I get paid to do this?!”

Q: How has working in a retirement community changed due to COVID-19? How has your role changed?

A: COVID has changed everyone’s lives; there’s not a person on the planet who hasn’t been affected by the incredible challenges caused by this pandemic. My senior friends are no exception. In fact, the way the virus has altered their lives is probably one of the more extreme examples one can fathom. The potential for isolation and loneliness (which are already serious concerns for this population!) are drastically increased. Look at the residents in my community, for example: They can’t gather in large groups for activities. They can’t visit with their loved ones. They can’t eat meals together. It’s gut-wrenching for them, their families, and everyone on staff. We are working extra hard to help our friends feel connected, loved, and hopeful. We’re teaching them how to communicate with loved ones using social media and email. We’re visiting them one-on-one to check in. We’re finding safe ways for small groups to gather in socially-distanced spaces. We’re setting up Zooms between residents and their families. And we’re making sure to ask each of our 700+ residents how they’re really doing — mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically — and to always ask “What can I do for you?” Our programming has had to dramatically shift. But the heart of what we do, loving and caring for the residents, is as strong a driving force as ever.

Q: How did you and Jane Johnson ’51 discover you shared an alma mater?

A: Ms. Johnson — or “JJ” as I call her — came up to me soon after I started my role at the senior living community. I’d been introduced on the daily administrative broadcast, which plays on TV in the residents’ apartments. JJ came up to me after it aired and said “We have something special in common.” When I couldn’t guess, she said “I’m an Elon College girl, too!”  We were so thrilled to make the connection and compare our experiences as Phoenix. We tell everyone now that we “went to college together!” A lot changed at Elon in the time between each of our experiences, but it’s a timeless bond that we cherish. I know if we had gone to school at the same time, we would’ve been close friends then just like we are now.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share to help share your story? 

A: Seniors like my JJ are so incredibly special, and they need to feel our love and care now more than ever. I’d urge anyone reading this to take some time to reach out to an elderly loved one in your life. Tell them you’re thinking of them, you love them, and that you know this year has been especially hard. Ask how they’re doing. And then — most importantly — listen, really listen.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work in their careers and their communities. To share the names of alumni you think should be considered for this series, please fill out the Alumni in Action nomination form.