Older patients get ‘HELP’ from Southlake volunteers


Volunteers at Newmarket-based Southlake Regional Health Centre are making a positive difference in the quality of care for older patients through a program that was introduced in April of this year.

As part of the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) – a quality enhancement program with a mission to prevent older patients from a decline in both physical and cognitive abilities during their hospital stay – 18 caring volunteers are providing needed support and assistance to seniors over 70 years of age on the Medicine Unit in the Hospital.

Already, HELP has proven to be a huge success.  Patients enrolled in the program receive up to three visits a day, seven days a week, and in the program’s first five months, 15 HELP volunteers paid 572 visits to 93 patients.

Between 30 and 50 per cent of seniors over 70 years of age experience a decline in their physical and mental abilities during a hospital stay – even a short stay of two to three days. Patients who show no sign of confusion at home may become disoriented or forgetful in a hospital environment. This is not surprising – these seniors find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, dealing with illness or surgery, perhaps new medications, tests or therapies.

Research shows that these declines are often preventable, and can be reduced through the support of health-care professionals and trained volunteers. In particular, senior patients find comfort when interacting with calm, caring volunteers, who provide sympathetic support, encouragement and companionship. With this support, it is hoped that delirium – best known as a sudden, severe confusion and rapid change in brain function – even if temporary, can be prevented, and admission into long-term care can be avoided.

Volunteers promote early mobilization by assisting with daily exercise and walking, as appropriate. They also provide conversation and social contact, as well as engaging patients in therapeutic activities such as reminiscing, music and games. Meal-time assistance and companionship includes help with opening containers and cutting up food, but not actual feeding, which is handled by health-care professionals.

HELP was developed by Dr. Sharon K. Inouye and colleagues at the Yale University School of Medicine, and the program, now found in many Ontario hospitals, is fast becoming a standard.

The HELP team at Southlake consists of an elder life specialist, advanced practice nurse with a speciality in geriatrics and specially trained volunteers. Volunteer training includes a one-day intensive classroom session and on-the-job training. In addition, volunteers are expected to take the Hospital’s patient-centred care course.

“This is a volunteer program,” says Yvonne Appleby-Clark, elder life specialist at Southlake. “There are many tasks involved in caring for older patients, but by providing valuable companionship and practical support, they augment the care patients receive from professional staff.”

“There is no doubt there is a real need for the program,” says Lisa Hamilton, advanced practice nurse-geriatrics.  “We hope that, with support and dedicated resources, the program will continue to grow for years to come.”