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“HELP”ing seniors stay mentally well while in hospital

When it comes to the mental well-being of elderly patients, Guelph General Hospital (GGH) has proven that small actions can have large impact. Activities such as checkers or dominoes, viewing personal photographs or reading the news may seem to have little benefit in the world of health care. However, when paired with highly trained volunteers and backed by a well-defined program, these actions can potentially prevent an elderly patient from deteriorating mentally while in hospital.

The Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) was developed to prevent hospital-induced, mental confusion – also called delirium – from setting in. In some cases, HELP has even allowed these patients to return home – something that delirium may have prevented in the past.

Each of GGH’s 35 HELP volunteers have witnessed firsthand the power of companionship and support. Volunteer Irene Hearn says she has witnessed apathy turn to interest, sadness to smiles and anger to calm during her time spent conversing, playing games or working through exercise routines with patients.

“A hospital day can be long and lonely,” Hearn says. “Even a short visit from a HELP volunteer can shorten the day and reassure the patient that, in spite of today’s health challenges, he or she is still connected to the outside world.”

It’s not only the patients benefitting from the program. Staff are too.

“Staff report that patients enrolled in the HELP program exhibit less anxiety during their hospital stay,” says Patricia Mlekuz, Director Medicine. “Staff also say patients are more alert and interactive after a visit from a HELP volunteer.”

According to the official HELP website, billions of dollars in excess health care costs are required per year due to the deteriorating mental effects of delirium. This cost, along with morbidity and sometimes mortality, stems from a seemingly preventable and correctable problem – disruption of daily routines which causes disorientation and confusion. By simply meeting and monitoring basic human needs – vision and hearing, hydration, toileting, mobility, and medicine – these costs can usually be avoided.

Although the solution is simple, hospitals rarely have the resources to fully accommodate the less urgent needs of elderly patients. As a result, they rely on volunteers who are willing to spend time with these patients.

Rebekah Larter, GGH’s Elder Life Specialist says she is thrilled with the number of volunteers that “give all their energy” to interacting with senior patients. However, according to Larter, more volunteers are always needed, as without them “the program could not go on.”

 June 3, 2014