"Giving our Elderly a HELPing Hand!"
I would like to take the opportunity to share a story with you. George Bilikas, a 98 year old gentleman, was hospitalized at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) for pneumonia in the autumn of 2017. Like many patients aged 75 and over, George was at high-risk of experiencing a decline in both his physical and mental abilities, and of developing delirium, which is an acute state of confusion, during his hospitalization. The onset of this type of decline can, in turn, lead to a prolonged hospital stay, increased disability, a diminished quality of life and, ultimately, the possibility of institutionalization.
Many of these consequences can be prevented, with timely and targeted interventions. And that's where HELP volunteers like me come in!
HELP stands for Hospital Elder-Life Program. Modeled from a program initiated at Yale University, which is currently in operation in more than 200 locations in 12 countries, HELP is a tried-and-true, volunteer-based program that complements the work of hospital staff to decrease delirium and functional decline in patients aged 75 or older and younger patients who fit a geriatric profile. Its primary goals are to maintain cognitive and physical functioning, to maximize independence upon discharge, to assist with the transition from hospital to home, and to prevent unplanned hospital re-admissions. The program is entirely funded by private donations from committed and generous people like you.
I decided to get involved with the HELP program at the JGH in response to a posting for volunteers at Dawson College, where I study psychology. After a thorough pre-selection interview, I underwent seven hours of theoretical training with an occupational therapist followed by 16 hours of bedside training with the JGH HELP Coordinator. I volunteered because I wanted to help others and the training allowed me to learn how to do it safely and in partnership with the doctors, nurses and allied heath professionals who are ultimately responsible for the patient's care and well-being.
Communication and teamwork are essential. At the start of my shift, I receive a briefing paper on each patient I must visit that day, describing what has to be done based on an assessment by the HELP geriatric nurse clinician. As part of the volunteer protocol, before entering any patient's room, I always check with the on-duty nurse to verify the patient's condition and take into account any new circumstances.
Interventions are tailored to the needs of each patient. It can be about accompanying a patient for walks, encouraging them to eat and drink properly to prevent dehydration and malnutrition, or simply talking to them and engaging them in stimulating therapeutic activities (crosswords, puzzles, cards, books, trivia quizzes, coloring, painting on wood, etc.) that keep them active and alert. The visit often begins with questions to help the patient remain oriented in time and to their environment, such as what today's date is and where the patient is (name of hospital, room number, etc.). Keeping patients physically active is also an objective of the program. It can be a challenge to engage patients in a simple exercise program, that helps them keep their muscle tone and which ill make it easier for them to get up and walk when the time comes. However, once they see the benefits of exercising, the motivation is there. The fact that I am dressed in blue, identifying me as a volunteer rather than a member of the medical staff, seems to reassure them and can make them more open to trying something new.
After each visit, I provide a report sheet to the HELP Coordinator, on which I document the patient's progress. This feedback aids the HELP Coordinator in modifying the interventions to the abilities and preferences of each patient.
Young people like me usually prefer to do volunteer work with children. However, through my participation in the HELP program, I have discovered that the elderly are marvellous people, pleasant to be with and to care for. Older patients are often hesitant to ask for things they need, because they don't want to be seen as bothering the physicians and nurses, but they are often more comfortable asking for things from a volunteer. We encourage them to speak up and help them directly when we can, or we make sure to pass on their requests to the nurses and orderlies when appropriate.
The reality is that many older adults are socially isolated and hospitalization often exacerbates this situation. It's incredibly touching to see how much they benefit from the extra personal attention and support we provide. It truly helps them to heal and thrive. George Bilikas' face simply lights up when his son, Peter, asks him about the HELP volunteers who interacted with him at the JGH.
As part of the selection process to become a HELP volunteer, I had to commit to a minimum of 24 weekly shifts of four hours each. I have surpassed that requirement and I now act as a mentor to new volunteers. I come back every week because I love it and because I know it makes a really big difference. You should see how upbeat and cheerful the patients are following a visit from a HELP volunteer compared to the sad and lonely state they are in when first entering their room. It says it all.
"By supporting the HELP program, we are in effect investing in our future. We're living longer, and a long life also means greater chances of getting sick. As we grow older, we hope that somebody will care for us and that we will not be part of a forgotten generation. And that is a huge difference!"
JGH Foundation Board Member and HELP champion
HELP is currently offered in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, as well as in the CD7 Medicine Nursing Unit and the K6 Acute Medicine Unit. The initiative is gaining ground across the hospital, and will be introduced to the Orthopedic Unit (8W) this summer.
The aging of our population makes providing elder-friendly care a priority, especially for a hospital like the JGH, which already treats a greater proportion of elderly patients, compared to other Quebec hospitals. In fact, the JGH is recognized by the government as a Centre of Excellence in Geriatrics and Chronic Care.
However, ensuring the expansion of the program to additional medical departments and services, and ultimately throughout the JGH, will require additional resources. These include more volunteers and training resources, as well as educational and promotional material for staff, patients and their families. Also of importance is the acquisition of specialized equipment to help seniors maintain autonomy of mobility, perception, feeding, stimulation, etc. Your continued financial support is crucial. Please renew and extend your support for the JGH today. Thank you.
Yours very truly,
Jewish General Hospital
P.S. As a HELP volunteer, I have gained a new appreciation of our elderly, many of whom belong to a generation that helped build the JGH and make it the great hospital it is today. They deserve our utmost admiration and respect for their contribution to the health and well-being of our entire community over the years. It's time for us to give back and show them that we are grateful, that we have not forgotten them and that we care. Please take a moment right now to make a donation and give as generously as you can in support of the Jewish General Hospital.