Volunteers celebrate 8 years of HELPING

Alessia Macaluso has been a volunteer at the Hospital’s Aged Living Program for eight years and enjoys every minute of it. After seeing the care and compassion shown to her grandmother who lives at our Hamilton General Hospital it fueled her passion to give back.

Some older adults struggle to keep their minds sharp and their bodies moving while in the hospital. With the Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) direct return to the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), volunteers reconnect with our aging patients to bring some sunshine back to their day while helping prevent delirium and decline in function.

The HELP program offers passionate staff and volunteer-led services that provide experiences that promote physical and cognitive health. Volunteer Alessia Macaluso, who has dedicated nearly 800 hours over eight years, shares why she loves what she does.

Giving back through volunteering

Years ago, Macaluso’s grandmother was admitted to HHS Hamilton General Hospital (HGH), and received care there until she died.

“I was touched by the love and care shown to my family,” said Macaluso. “I want to give back and show kindness to others who are struggling.”

Macaluso has been volunteering with HELP since 2015 at the HHS Juravinski Hospital (JH) and is one of the longest serving volunteers. She is passionate, dedicated and committed to not only volunteering but impacting the elderly community in this program.

“It gives me joy and purpose knowing that my interactions are meaningful, and can provide comfort in times of need,” says Macaluso.

Macaluso enjoys learning about his patients and their lives. One of the patients he worked with was in the Second World War and shares memories of this difficult time.

“He only ever told one person these stories,” said Macaluso. “When I asked him why he said ‘I could tell that you cared and that you were really interested’. It was a special moment, and I still think about that conversation.”

What is HELP?

HELP was brought to McMaster University Medical Center (MUMC) HHS in 2005, then expanded to JH and HGH.

Patient Lynda Macdonald enjoys a friendly visit from Alessia while discussing the daily fact sheet which provides weather updates, today’s facts, and jokes.

HELP is an innovative, evidence-based program supporting older patients during hospitalization. The main focus is to prevent delirium and functional decline. HELP is staffed by aging specialists, clinical nurse specialists and supported by a team of trained volunteers and students working the bedside of the acute care unit.

HELP staff assess and enroll patients for risk factors for delirium, and develop individual delirium prevention treatment plans for each patient. Volunteers and students perform delirium prevention interventions with patients such as providing cognitive stimulation, assistance with vision and hearing, helping prepare meals and encouraging eating and drinking, encouraging mobility, and encouraging sleep and relaxation.

HELP has been shown to prevent delirium and functional decline with studies showing it can prevent up to 40 percent of cases.

A star volunteer offers training to others

On January 7, Macaluso celebrated its eighth anniversary by volunteering in the program.

“Alessia is an amazing volunteer with an infectious energy,” said Kelly Turner, senior living specialist for HELP at JH. “She is one of our star volunteers with an unbridled passion for her role and genuine care for patients.”

Putting that experience to work, Macaluso was promoted to team leader and now supports staff by training and mentoring new HELP volunteers. Because HELP is highly specialized, extensive training and education is provided.

Kim Dungavel is the volunteer resources coordinator at JH. “Our volunteers go through several training sessions before they start,” says Dungavel. “This training focuses on providing information about the program, what is involved, and how the volunteers will help.”

Playing HELP during a pandemic

During the pandemic, many patients have struggled to maintain their cognitive abilities and mobility due to the loss of interaction with family, friends and volunteers. With the help of the HHS information technology department, HELP set up a telephone program where volunteers call patients at their bedside.

Volunteers are given instructions for navigating conversations over the phone, and calls provide much needed orientation and socialization. HELP telephone volunteers reached more than 150 patients, through more than 500 phone calls involving Macaluso.

“It’s like a light at the end of a dark tunnel for patients,” says Macaluso. “The friendship was greeted with enthusiasm, and most of the time they didn’t want to hang up.”

Support the patient’s health journey

HELP is not just healing

HELP focuses on maintaining a healthy mind while also promoting a healthy body with exercises and light movements.

HELP not only prevents delirium and decline in function while enhancing the patient experience, but is also a very rewarding opportunity for volunteers. “You really become part of the team,” says Turner. “Not only does it make a difference in a patient’s health journey, but the work of our volunteers never goes unnoticed by staff and nurses.”

HELP not only touches patients enrolled in the program, but also supports patients’ loved ones.

“Our presence can temporarily relieve caregiver fatigue,” said Macaluso. “There are times when I come to visit patients and spend time listening to the family. It is a reminder that when one person is admitted, there are many people who are affected by this hospitalization.”

“These patients carry a lifetime of experience and wisdom,” says Macaluso. “They also learn how to drive a car, get nervous at the school dance, and have dreams, heartaches, and adventures. Remembering and spending time together means a lot to them. At the end of the day, it’s about being present and knowing someone cares.”

Turner added, “We are actively recruiting new volunteers, and look forward to having more people like Alessia care for the minds, bodies and hearts of our patients, every day.”

For more information about volunteering with the HELP program, visit our volunteer page.

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