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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As a volunteer gently helped Eva Fields sit up in her hospital bed, the 87-year-old patient promptly stood up and starting doing tai chi.
"Come on, move your body," Fields told volunteer Quinn Watson as both women glided their arms back and forth. "Don't forget to breathe."
Fields, at Meriter Hospital this month for an infection in her leg, is one of many hospitalized older adults at risk of developing delirium, a sudden state of confusion or altered mental state that can be triggered by illness, medication or being in a strange environment.
Watson, 24, is one of more than 50 volunteers at Meriter who check in on such patients at least once a day, the Wisconsin State Journal reported (http://bit.ly/16ID0h4 ). The volunteers help the patients eat, talk, walk, exercise in bed, play games, listen to music, get comfortable, relax at night and otherwise try to stay mentally healthy.
The service, called Hospital Elder Life Program, or HELP, is designed to prevent delirium and related complications, such as dehydration, falls and bedsores. It can save more than $800 per patient per year in hospital costs, plus thousands more in nursing home costs, according to the Aging Brain Center in Boston, which oversees HELP.
More than 200 U.S. hospitals use the program, including nine in Wisconsin. Meriter is the only one participating in Madison, though St. Mary's Hospital, UW Hospital and Madison's Veterans Hospital have services that are similar.
At Meriter, most of the volunteers are students, many of them preparing for health care careers.
They get at least 20 hours of training and generally volunteer one three-hour shift each week.
Some patients have dementia, chronic memory loss that is different from delirium. Others have dehydration, difficulty sleeping, or impaired vision, hearing or mobility, which puts them at higher risk for delirium.
Volunteers tailor activities to patients, with interactions ranging from conversation and meal assistance to exercise and massage, said Rick Dahl, Meriter's HELP coordinator.
"It can decrease stress and provide some engagement," Dahl said. "It can provide better outcomes for patients, and it can save the hospital money."
As Watson's encounter with Fields revealed, many patients are eager for the attention.
"A lot of people wouldn't have an outlet without this," said Fields, who worked before retirement in real estate with her son, Jay Bruner, of Bruner Realty in Madison. She lives at Coventry Village in Madison, where she takes a tai chi class.
Fields told Watson about her upbringing on a cotton farm in Georgia, "just a hoot and a holler from where (the late comedian) Minnie Pearl lived (in Tennessee)," Fields said.
Bonnie Becker, a 70-year-old from Madison hospitalized several times at Meriter the past year, said she discussed travel with some volunteers and sports with others.
One played guitar and sang, including a song Becker requested, the "Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful Word" medley made famous by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
"I always like talking to young people," Becker said.
When Watson visited 91-year-old LeEldra Morgan of Madison, she learned that Morgan — in the hospital for a broken pelvis from a fall while shoveling snow — is originally from Platteville, where Watson grew up.
"I get to learn about these extraordinary lives people have led," said Watson, an emergency medical technician and 2013 UW-Madison graduate who plans to apply to medical schools.
Meriter started HELP in 2010. The program is supported by the Meriter Foundation.
St. Mary's doesn't have a "branded program" focused on delirium, but hospital staff work to prevent, identify and manage delirium in patients, including through nursing care plans, spokeswoman Kim Sveum said.
UW Hospital has a staff program addressing delirium and a volunteer program serving older adults called Singing, Talking and Reminiscing, or STaR. UW is looking at implementing HELP, spokeswoman Lisa Brunette said.
The VA hospital uses a delirium assessment program in its intensive care unit, spokesman Tim Donovan said.
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj
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