While still an Arts & Sciences pre-med undergrad at WashU, Harsh Moolani, AB ’19, founded Create Circles, a nonprofit that pairs older adults with trained college student volunteers.
“I’d meet older people who had incredible accomplishments, but their loneliness was greater than their achievements,” he says. “It’s hard to take pride in what you’ve done if you don’t have someone to share it with.”
Under the program, the student and older adult focus on crafting a sense of purpose that might alleviate loneliness, a need Moolani noticed while volunteering at nursing homes. Through companionship, engaging in long-term projects and developing meaningful relationships, participants also regain autonomy. For example, a woman who could no longer cook was paired with a student who helped her produce a cookbook for her family and friends.
“For many in long-term care, things are happening to them,” Moolani says. “Our curriculum allows older adults to feel as if they are the ones helping because they have something to give.”
With some 700 volunteers in 33 states, Create Circles is now a national organization. Last fall, it received a $495,000 grant from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, which meant Create Circles could hire four permanent staff members and no longer rely exclusively on volunteers.
“Prior to the grant, we were doing a lot of the busy work,” he says. “We relied on students who were passionate about the program but had other commitments. Now we have employees whose job it is to make our endeavor as awesome as possible.”
In addition to managing Create Circles, Moolani is currently an MD/MPH student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Studying for the dual degree is allowing him to learn about both designing and delivering health care. “I think the beauty of earning an MD, where you are a practitioner on the ground, and an MPH, where you are a designer in the air, is the ability to bridge both settings, bringing insights back and forth.”
As for his future focus, he says that while he wants to continue serving older adults, geriatrics might not be the route he takes to get there. “Right now, I’m most interested in internal medicine,” he says.
The future of Create Circles might also extend beyond exclusively serving an older population. “Loneliness,” he says, “is seen everywhere in health care, and Create Circles can be part of the solution.” The University of Miami obstetrics and gynecology department has already partnered with Create Circles on a program that helps high-risk pregnant women who must be hospitalized for an extended time until they can have safe deliveries.
“They reached out to us saying the isolation that can take place in nursing homes is similar to what people residing in a hospital for extended periods of time may experience,” Moolani says. “My role now is to figure out how we can take the essence of what we’ve built and try to expand it into other areas of health care.”