College Graduate Starts Volunteer Program to Comfort Elderly

The aging and frail nun, a resident at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center on Fifth Avenue, was quickly declining. A once gregarious teacher, she was rarely speaking when Ashley Shaw (CC’13), an intern at the extended care facility for the terminally and chronically ill, delivered an envelope.

May 16, 2013

“She held my hand and gripped it,” recalls Shaw, a pre-med student. “I asked if she wanted me to open the envelope for her. She indicated that she did. A friend had sent her $5 to buy a Diet Coke—she loved Diet Coke. I remember the sort-of smile on her face. I sat with her for an hour or more, in silence, just holding her hand.”

Such experiences prompted Shaw to start the “At Your Service Volunteer Program” for Columbia students at the Cooke center, which provides long-term companionship for elderly residents nearing the end of life. “TCC could really benefit from extra hands and extra people to talk to residents who might not have many friends or family who visit,” says Shaw. “And there was also the need of pre-med students [at Columbia] who yearned for meaningful patient interaction.”

Funded by grants from the Columbia College Alumni and Parent Internship Fund and the Work Exemption Program, Shaw designed the volunteer initiative during summer 2012. Now, each semester, approximately 30 College and post-baccalaureate students devote four hours a week to the Cooke center, two of which are spent engaging residents in recreational activities.

Shaw, whose major is biology with a concentration in art history, became involved with the Cooke center during summer 2011 through an internship offered by the Earth Institute Center for the Study of Science and Religion. She has accepted post-graduation employment at center and hopes to enroll in medical school in fall 2014.

In addition to palliative care, Shaw is interested in adolescent medicine as a result of her involvement with Peer Health Exchange, a national teen-oriented health education organization. During the last four years, through the organization’s Barnard/Columbia chapter, Shaw has taught more than 45 health workshops in public high schools throughout New York City. As a senior, Shaw also was president of the Columbia University American Medical Students Association Pre-Medical Chapter and community adviser for McBain residence hall.

The Torrance, Calif., native chose the College for the opportunity to live in New York City, a decision she relishes every time she escapes to Lincoln Center to catch a performance by the New York City Ballet.

A dancer herself since she was 4, Shaw sees a direct connection between her love of art and her work at the Cooke center. “A lot of people at the end of life start to think about what makes life meaningful. Learning about art and what has inspired people to make art throughout the ages—whether it is religion, politics or just the need for expression—is what makes life meaningful. I feel those two areas of my studies are congruent and complimentary.”