A Little TLC Goes a Long Way to Help Older Patients
Jul 22, 2022 Nicole Levine
Everyone is grateful the Emergency Department is there to help in a crisis, and no one wants to find themselves in the midst of a medical emergency—and especially without a loved one to hold their hand and give them support while waiting for care.
For seniors who find themselves in the ED without support, Cedars-Sinai volunteers step in to help through the TLC program, a new volunteer service that launched in January 2022.
"Older adults have decades of lived experiences that we can all learn from. Exchanging stories and perspectives with others who may be generations apart is a privilege that allows each party to grow."
"A trip to the emergency department can be frightening for anyone, but imagine coming in alone and you're 90 years old and coping with a painful or disorienting health problem," says Michele Prince, director of Volunteer Services at Cedars-Sinai. "Our volunteers are there to help keep our older patients a little more comfortable."
TLC in the ED
These experienced and specially trained volunteers pair up with patients 65 or older who need company. They have a considerable tool kit of amenities they can offer, in addition to providing companionship and serving as a helpful liaison between patients and ED staff. They can offer water, snacks, magnification cards to help them read forms more clearly, hearing amplifiers, puzzle books, blankets and more.
"Every shift, I try to uplift these patients in any way I can and help them feel more at ease," says Audrey Lam, one of the first TLC volunteers. "When I spent time with a patient with dementia who reminisced about her past, it felt meaningful to learn her story and see her smile grow."
Improving the patient experience
Audrey served as a member of a Cedars-Sinai committee working to improve the patient experience for older patients who came to the Emergency Department. A longtime emergency department volunteer, Audrey also has a degree in human development and aging from the University of Southern California's School of Gerontology. The idea for the TLC program grew out of the committee's work and volunteer experiences.
For example, Audrey once sat with a patient who had difficulty hearing. Throughout her shift, she would visit him and communicate with him through written notes to help him understand what was happening.
"After that, he felt so much more comfortable and more at ease," she says. "That was one of the inspirations that made me want to contribute to the development of this program. Our aging population is growing so rapidly, and it's so important to create structures designed for our older adults to address their needs. Now we can do that with the TLC program."
Connecting with older generations
Volunteers in the program first gain experience serving in general Emergency Department (ED) volunteer roles. They're equipped with special phones that help them keep in touch with the ED staff and keep an eye out for patients 65 or older who might need some extra support.
"Growing up in a tight-knit extended family and connecting with my elders through stories and dance allowed me to see both the beauty and difficulties of aging," Audrey says. "I believe it's our responsibility to pay it forward and discover opportunities to enhance the lives of our older loved ones."
The 30 volunteers in the program are trained to work with older patients. Some of the lessons are useful to anyone with an older person in their life.
"Older adults have decades of lived experiences that we can all learn from," Audrey says. "Exchanging stories and perspectives with others who may be generations apart is a privilege that allows each party to grow."
Proving support, care and compassion
Nursing staff, volunteers and longtime Program Administrator Lori Jankovic collaborated to design the program, which serves as an excellent example of staff and volunteers coming together to help patients have a better experience, Michele says.
"The essence of volunteer services, no matter what, is about providing emotional support and compassion," Michele says. "This is the epitome of that. No one needs to feel isolated or suffer with a heightened level of fear because they're alone. Our volunteers are there."