When Kusum met Lian: The story of a New York friendship

This post is excerpted from a report I recently wrote with Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, “I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.”

When she was in her mid-80s, Kusum Lele lost interest in everything.

“I love my Indian classical music,” says Kusum, a retired geneticist who lives in New York City and is now in her early 90s. “I used to listen to it all day.”

But for five or six years, “I could not stand it,” she says. “I would not get up to turn my stereo on.”

She wasn’t going out much, either. She’d once enjoyed eating lunch and knitting at a nearby senior center, but now, the noise there irritated her, and walking was getting harder and harder.

She was still making it to the doctor, however, because she’d connected with DOROT, a nonprofit that serves elders in Manhattan and suburban Westchester County. Whenever she scheduled a new appointment, she’d call DOROT, and a social worker there would book a staff member to escort her.

One day in 2015, the social worker called with a proposal.

“She said, ‘There is a young girl, about 24 … she works, but on Saturdays she can visit you for one hour,” recalls Kusum, who never married or had children.

“I said, ‘I like that! I like to be with young people.’”

The “young girl” was Lian Zucker, a recent Yale graduate who’d signed up to volunteer for DOROT’s “friendly visiting” program.

And as soon as Kusum met her, she began to come back to life.

“The first time she came, we were non-stop talking,” Kusum says. “Oh my gosh, she had so much enthusiasm!”

They talked about India, where Kusum was born and raised. They talked about Israel, where Lian was born, and California, where she grew up. They talked about their careers, their families, and what they liked to cook.

The next week, Kusum turned back on her music.

“She gave me back my motivation, because she is young, enthusiastic,” Kusum says. “Lian is wonderful. Wonderful, I tell you!”

Lian values the relationship, too.

“All my friends know about Kusum,” she says. “Everyone at work knows about Kusum. Some people say things to me like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a saint,’ and I say, ‘No, no, I’m really not a saint! I do something really, really fun every Saturday.’”

“We come from extremely different backgrounds, we grew up in different times—and our relationship just has nothing to do with all that,” Lian says. “We lose ourselves.”

“I feel like I’ve known her my entire life.”