Loneliness can be a problem for older people, especially when they’re in the hospital. Their children may have moved away. Spouses and friends may themselves be too frail to visit. So a California hospital is providing volunteer companions in the geriatric unit.

One of the volunteers at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica is 24-year-old Julia Torrano. She hopes to go to medical school. Meanwhile, her twice-weekly volunteer shifts give her a lot of practice working with patients.

One of them is Estelle Day. She’s 79 years old, a slender woman with a wild mane of hair that is still mostly red. Torrano peppers her with questions.

“Where were you originally from?” asks Torrano. Day replies that she grew up on Long Island in New York. Torrano also wants to know how Day met her husband, where she learned to play the harp, where her travels have taken her.

Day is happy to answer everything. She says she likes people and describes herself as “windbaggy.” That’s especially true if she’s talking about playing music. She is a lifelong musician and retired music teacher. She plays harp and guitar, but her favorite instrument is the pipe organ. “To be able to rock a building under your hands and your feet is exciting,” she says.

This was Day’s fifth day as a patient in the geriatric unit. She says multiple chronic conditions brought her here, but she didn’t want to name them. Visible were a bulky back brace she wears for her osteoporosis, an IV drip and a heart monitor.

When that heart monitor suddenly began beeping, Torrano was out of the room like a shot. She returned seconds later with a nurse who solved the problem with the push of a button.

Torrano and the other volunteer companions aren’t just candy stripers, bringing snacks and magazines. She knew what to do when the heart monitor started beeping because, like all of the volunteers in this program, she’s been trained. As Dr. David Reuben, chief of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA explains: “Just because you’re willing to do something doesn’t mean you know how to do it.”

Volunteers learn about medical confidentiality, what to do in an emergency, and how to interact with patients, including patients with dementia. Reuben says they go through a “vigorous training process and vetting process before we allow them to be with patients.” There are nearly three dozen volunteers so far. The program started just a few months ago, and the hospital plans to expand it.

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