Aging Options

UCLA Hospital Trains Volunteers to Help Seniors Avoid Isolation

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On a recent morning we heard an interesting story on National Public Radio that caught our attention. It spoke of the dangers of loneliness and isolation for seniors – a danger made even worse when older adults face hospitalization.  Now the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, California, is training volunteer companions to spend time engaging with older patients. So far the results from this trial program seem very encouraging, and the program is expanding.

Click here for the NPR story which explains how this program is improving outcomes for senior patients at UCLA’s Santa Monica facility.

For years medical professionals have recognized the adverse effects of loneliness on seniors. Older men and women in isolation face not only a pattern of social decline but also physical and psychological problems related to lack of stimulus from other people. (In fact we wrote about this last summer in this article from the AgingOptions blog about the effect of loneliness on the heart.)  When seniors spend time in the hospital, the problem of loneliness is often amplified: adult children may live far away, and the patient’s spouse and friends may either have passed away or be too frail to make the visit.

Seeing the problem, officials at UCLA Medical Center’s geriatric unit decided to try a different approach. They recruited volunteers, provided them with training, and assigned them to visit regularly with elderly patients.  (The program is described in detail on the UCLA Medical Center website here.) The program, called Companion Care, was launched over one year ago and presently has 45 trained volunteers, with a goal of having 200 men and women who will each agree to spend at least one 4-hour shift per week.

The website describes the need this way. “Poor nutrition and feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation are prevalent in the geriatric population, and the program seeks to counter these and reduce patient stress by providing one-on-one companionship, assistance and access to activities.” Companion Care volunteers wear distinctive bright green polo shirts, and when they visit, they “often read to patients, play games with them, assist with feeding and perform other tasks, such as accompanying patients on walks under a nurse’s supervision.” Even for patients who do have visiting friends and family, volunteer companions can provide respite care to give a spouse or adult child a break from staying with the patient.

The NPR story explains the importance of volunteer training by telling what happened when one patient’s heart monitor alarm sounded.  “When that heart monitor suddenly began beeping, (the volunteer) 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.”  UCLA officials explain that these trained companions “aren’t just candy stripers, bringing snacks and magazines.”  According to NPR, “Volunteers learn about medical confidentiality, what to do in an emergency, and how to interact with patients, including patients with dementia.” UCLA describes this as a “vigorous training process and vetting process” that is required before they can be with patients.

We applaud this idea and hope the concept of well-trained volunteer companions spreads to other hospitals throughout the country. This kind of “high-touch” hands-on personal care stands in stark contrast to the highly technical approach to modern medicine that too many doctors rely on. It also reminds us of the critical need for seniors to have someone in charge of their medical care who understands their unique social, physical and psychological needs. A geriatric physician, or geriatrician, is that medical professional you need, and if you’ll contact us here at AgingOptions we’ll provide you with a referral to a geriatrician practicing in your area. Selecting a geriatrician as the “quarterback” of your medical team will be one of the most important decisions you can make to help safeguard your health as you age.

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(originally reported at

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