Hospital Companions Can Ease Isolation For Older People

Nov 21, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 1:43 pm

Loneliness can be a problem for older people, especially when they're in the hospital. Their children may have moved away. Spouses and friends may themselves be too frail to visit. So a California hospital is providing volunteer companions in the geriatric unit.

One of the volunteers at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica is 24-year-old Julia Torrano. She hopes to go to medical school. Meanwhile, her twice-weekly volunteer shifts give her a lot of practice working with patients.

One of them is Estelle Day. She's 79 years old, a slender woman with a wild mane of hair that is still mostly red. Torrano peppers her with questions.

"Where were you originally from?" asks Torrano. Day replies that she grew up on Long Island in New York. Torrano also wants to know how Day met her husband, where she learned to play the harp, where her travels have taken her.

Day is happy to answer everything. She says she likes people and describes herself as "windbaggy." That's especially true if she's talking about playing music. She is a lifelong musician and retired music teacher. She plays harp and guitar, but her favorite instrument is the pipe organ. "To be able to rock a building under your hands and your feet is exciting," she says.

This was Day's fifth day as a patient in the geriatric unit. She says multiple chronic conditions brought her here, but she didn't want to name them. Visible were a bulky back brace she wears for her osteoporosis, an IV drip and a heart monitor.

When that heart monitor suddenly began beeping, Torrano was out of the room like a shot. She returned seconds later with a nurse who solved the problem with the push of a button.

Torrano and the other volunteer companions aren't just candy stripers, bringing snacks and magazines. She knew what to do when the heart monitor started beeping because, like all of the volunteers in this program, she's been trained. As Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA explains: "Just because you're willing to do something doesn't mean you know how to do it."

Volunteers learn about medical confidentiality, what to do in an emergency, and how to interact with patients, including patients with dementia. Reuben says they go through a "vigorous training process and vetting process before we allow them to be with patients." There are nearly three dozen volunteers so far. The program started just a few months ago, and the hospital plans to expand it.

Loneliness is a legitimate medical issue. There are a number of studies linking loneliness and social isolation in old people to poorer health and earlier death, including one published earlier this month in JAMA Psychiatry associating loneliness, social isolation and brain changes typical in Alzheimer's. Reuben cautions that those studies weren't done in a hospital setting. Nevertheless, he says, "you might suspect that being more engaged, more energized ... might promote a speedier recovery."

So now the hospital is designing studies to find out if the volunteer companionship improves medical outcomes, or at least improves the patient's experience in the hospital.

Torrano says she'll sometimes spend her entire four-hour shift with a single patient. Like Estelle Day, many are happy to share their life stories. She remembers one man in particular who had been a political prisoner in Iran. He'd run an underground newspaper. "He was in jail so much," she recalls, yet he told her he also misses Iran. "Even though it was very traumatic, he still wishes he was there," Torrano says.

Estelle Day says she's not especially lonely, but she has been alone much of the time since she was admitted to the geriatric unit. So it helps to have a companion who will not only listen to her life story, but can also troubleshoot the little problems that can make life in a hospital such a challenge. "Somebody who is sensitive and tuned-in and is very helpful," explains Day, the way Torrano was when Day's heart monitor started acting up.

And companionship can take many forms. On the day of Torrano's visit, one of Day's most pressing issues was fixing her hair. It had been shoved up in a rubber band since she was admitted.

So with Day's encouragement, Torrano picks up a comb and gently begins detangling. Whatever it takes to make the patient look good and feel better.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the elderly, keeping loneliness at bay can be critical to staying well, especially when they're in the hospital. Their children might have moved away. Spouses and friends may themselves be too frail to visit. So a California hospital is providing companions for patients in the geriatric unit. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and she tagged along with one of the volunteers.

JULIA TORRANO: Where were you originally from?

ESTELLE DAY: I grew up in New York.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Volunteer Julia Torrano and patient Estelle Day have settled in for a long chat. Julia is 24 and hopes to go to medical school. She asks a lot of questions.

TORRANO: What brought you to California?

DAY: I grew up on the East Coast, and...

TORRANO: Where did you meet your husband?

DAY: At a music educators' conference.

TORRANO: Oh, my gosh, OK. Where did you learn to play the harp?

DAY: After I retired.

TORRANO: Where else have you guys traveled?

DAY: I've been to Egypt and Israel three times.

JAFFE: Estelle was happy to answer everything to you.

DAY: Do you not think I'm windbaggy enough?

JAFFE: Estelle is 79, a slender woman with a wild mane of hair that's still mostly red. A lifelong musician and retired music teacher, she plays harp and guitar, but her favorite is the pipe organ.

DAY: I mean, to be able to rock a building under your hands and your feet is exciting.

JAFFE: This was Estelle's fifth day as a patient in the geriatric unit at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. She says multiple chronic conditions landed her in the hospital, but she didn't want to name them. Visible were a back brace she wears for her osteoporosis, an IV drip and a heart monitor...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

JAFFE: ...Which suddenly started beeping. Julia was out of the room like a shot. Seconds later, she returned with a nurse, who solved the problem with a push of a button.

TORRANO: That was an easy fix. Sorry.

JAFFE: And just like that, she was gone. Julia knew who to grab to fix the problem because all the volunteers in this program are trained.

DAVID REUBEN: Just because you're willing to do something doesn't mean you know how to do it.

JAFFE: Says Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He says volunteers learn about medical confidentiality, what to do in an emergency and how to interact with patients.

REUBEN: They have to go through a vigorous training process and a vetting process before we allow them to be with patients.

JAFFE: The volunteer companion program just started a few months ago. There are nearly three dozen volunteers but plans to expand. While studies show loneliness has negative impacts on health, Reuben says those studies haven't been done in a hospital setting.

REUBEN: But you might suspect that if you are more engaged and more energized that it might promote a speedier recovery.

JAFFE: So the hospital is now designing studies to find out if hospital companionship improves medical outcomes, or at least the patient's experience in the hospital. Estelle Day says she's not especially lonely, but she is alone much of the time, so it helps to have a companion who can spot the little problems that can make life in the hospital such a challenge.

DAY: Somebody who is sensitive and tuned in is very helpful.

JAFFE: The way Julia ran out when something started beeping.

DAY: Exactly.

JAFFE: Estelle's current dilemma is fixing her hair that's been shoved in a rubber band for the past five days. Julia picks up a comb and gently begins detangling.

DAY: I mean, is it workable or no?

TORRANO: Oh, I think so. I think I may need to part it, though.

JAFFE: Whatever it takes to help Estelle Day look good and feel better.

TORRANO: Good?

DAY: Yeah, you're good.

TORRANO: OK.

DAY: You're great.

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.