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Alessia Macaluso has been a volunteer with the Hospital Elder Life Program for eight years and enjoys every minute. After seeing the care and compassion given to her grandmother who was staying at our Hamilton General Hospital, it sparked her passion in giving back.
March 15, 2023

Volunteer celebrates 8 years of HELPing

Some older adults struggle with keeping their minds sharp and their bodies moving while in the hospital. With the return of Hamilton Health Sciences’ (HHS) in-person Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), volunteers are reconnecting with our elderly patients to bring some sunshine back into their days while helping to prevent delirium and functional decline.

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

Giving back through volunteering

Many years ago, Macaluso’s grandmother was admitted to HHS’ Hamilton General Hospital (HGH), and received care there until she passed away.

“I was moved by the compassion and care shown to my family,” says Macaluso. “I wanted to give back and show kindness to others who were struggling.”

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

“It brings me joy and purpose knowing that my interactions are meaningful, and can bring comfort in a time of need,” says Macaluso.

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

“He had only ever told one other person about these stories,” says Macaluso. “When I asked him why he said ‘I can tell you care and that you’re genuinely interested’. It was a special moment, and I still think of that conversation.”

What is HELP?

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

Patient Lynda Macdonald enjoying a friendly visit from Alessia while discussing the daily fact sheet which provides weather updates, facts of the day, and jokes.

HELP is an innovative, evidence-based program supporting older patients during hospitalizations. The key focus is to prevent delirium and functional decline. HELP is staffed by elder life specialists, clinical nurse specialists, and supported by a team of extensively trained volunteers and students who work at the bedside in acute care units.

HELP staff assess and enroll patients for delirium risk factors, and develop individualized delirium prevention care plans for each patient. Volunteers and students carry out delirium prevention interventions with patients such as providing cognitive stimulation, assistance with vision and hearing, help with setting up for meals and encouraging eating and drinking, encouraging mobility, and promoting sleep and relaxation.

HELP has been proven to prevent delirium and functional decline with research showing that the program can prevent up to 40 per cent of cases.

A star volunteer offers training to others

On Jan. 7, Macaluso celebrated her eighth anniversary volunteering with the program.

“Alessia is an exceptional volunteer with infectious energy,” says Kelly Turner, elder life specialist for HELP at JH. “She’s one of our star volunteers with an unbridled passion for her role and genuine care for the patients.”

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

Kim Dungavel is a volunteer resource coordinator at JH. “Our volunteers go through several training sessions before they get started,” says Dungavel. “This training focuses on giving information about the program, what’s involved, and how the volunteers will be helping.”

Pivoting HELP during the pandemic  

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

Volunteers were provided with instructions to navigate conversations over the phone, and calls provided much-needed orientation and socialization. The HELP telephone volunteers reached more than 150 patients, through more than 500 phone calls which Macaluso was heavily involved with.

“It was like a light at the end of a dark tunnel for patients,” says Macaluso. “The companionship was enthusiastically welcomed, and most of the time they wouldn’t want to get off the phone.”

Supporting a patient’s health-care journey

HELP not only heal

HELP focuses on maintaining healthy minds while also promoting healthy bodies too with light exercises and movements.

Not only does HELP prevent delirium and functional decline while improving a patient’s experience, but it’s also a very fulfilling opportunity for volunteers. “You really do 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 the patients enrolled in the program, but supports patients’ loved ones too.

“Our presence can temporarily relieve caregiver burnout,” says Macaluso. “There are times when I have arrived to visit with a patient and spend time listening to the family. It is a reminder that when a person is admitted, there are many people affected by this hospitalization.”

“These patients bring a lifetime of experiences and wisdom,” says Macaluso. “They too learned how to drive a car, were nervous at a school dance, and had dreams, heartaches, and adventures. Reminiscing 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 adds, “We are actively recruiting new volunteers, and look forward to bringing on more people like Alessia who care for our patients’ minds, bodies, and hearts, each and every day.”

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