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.
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.
DAY: Yeah, you're good.
DAY: You're great.
JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.