Hospital stays now less lonely for older adults

Volunteer companions spend time with elderly at UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center

Hospitals can be lonely places for patients, especially elderly patients who may have few, if any, family members or friends living nearby to visit them.

“Hospitalization is never fun, but for patients who don’t have visitors, it can be very lonely,” said Valerie Yeo, unit director of the inpatient geriatrics unit at UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center. Even patients with family members close by often discover  their relatives are unable to visit frequently due to work or other commitments.  

That’s why the UCLA Geriatrics Program launched its Companion Care Program at the hospital last year. Funded by a gift from the Samuel Steinberg Family Foundation, the program provides specially trained volunteers who offer individualized companionship to older adult patients while they are hospitalized.

The companions spend time reading to patients, playing games with them, assisting with feeding and accompanying them on walks under a nurse’s supervision.

Presently, there are more than 60 trained companions in place, with a goal of having 200 on board when the program becomes fully operational. Volunteers, ages18 or older, donate at least one four-hour shift per week. Companions are easily identifiable by the bright green polo shirts they wear while rounding on the unit.

Companion Julia Torrano believes she benefits as much from the program as do the patients she visits during her shift every Friday. “This is the most rewarding volunteer program I’ve ever participated in,” she said. “Most of the patients just crave talking to people. They love talking about their lives, sharing their knowledge and wisdom, and I love hearing about them.”

Torrano, a 24-year-old from Santa Monica who’s planning to attend medical school, recalled visiting with an older gentleman who had no family, and he began talking about his passion for music and ballroom dancing. “He said it had gotten him through a divorce and other bumpy patches in his life. He was so enthusiastic and animated that it made me want to learn ballroom dancing myself!”

Dr. David Reuben, chief of the UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica and Westwood, said companions also help interested patients tell their life story through the Living History Program, designed to improve the connection between caregivers and patients by encouraging patients to share life experiences.

“These volunteers provide individualized social interaction and attention — engaging patients in a more personal way than might otherwise be possible. Most of the patients on the unit are sick, and a significant number have dementia, so levels of ability to participate in activities will vary,” Reuben explained.

He added that volunteers must acquire CPR certification, receive specialized training in the needs and care of the geriatric population, and attend a two-hour orientation program.

However, lonely patients are not the only beneficiaries of companion care, according to Pedro Jimenez, program manager.

“Sometimes volunteers are assigned to patients who actually do have family members and friends, but those visitors may need a break — maybe just an hour to grab lunch or run home and take a shower,” Jimenez said. “They may be reluctant to leave their loved one even for that amount of time. A companion can step in and provide a bit of respite.”

The Companion Care Program is currently available only at UCLA’s Santa Monica campus. Anyone interested in volunteering may learn more by contacting Jimenez at 310-351-2527, emailing him at [email protected] or visiting this website ».

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