Burnishing The Golden Years: Hospital Elder Life Program Helps Geriatrics

The Hackensack University Medical Center's Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) aids geriatric patients who have delirium or are at risk of delirium.

Photo by John Emerson.

Like many people, Ellen Smith’s life was changed by a hospital stay. After suffering complications with her second hip-replacement surgery, she was lucky enough to experience the compassion of a caring doctor at Hackensack University Medical Center. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow. What a difference it makes when someone cares.’”

Once she was healed, Smith resolved to go to nursing school. Then her hip failed for a third time. Smith had to leave nursing school, but while recovering, she learned of HUMC’s Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP).
The HELP program aids geriatric patients who have delirium or are at risk of delirium, a severe state of confusion caused by changes in brain function that occur with physical or mental illness.

Now a program leader, Smith, 52, has made her own impression on fellow caregivers. “Her loyalty is to the patients,” says Catherine Dipasquale, manager of HUMC volunteer services, “and her goal is to provide the best care possible with the least amount of medication.”

Smith’s typical day can include everything from educating new volunteers to acting as liaison between the HELP program and the hospital’s nursing staff. Still, she manages to spend the majority of her time comforting patients. Bedside conversation, trivia, holding hands—these are Smith’s specialties.

“These people have given so much in their life, and a lot of them don’t have anyone,” says Smith.

A former substitute teacher and the mother of three, Smith has achieved much as a HELP volunteer. She was a key factor in securing HUMC a Disease Specific Certification for Delirium from the national Joint Commission in 2011. Smith was also instrumental in securing permission for HELP volunteers to enter isolation rooms to aid particularly difficult patients. In 2012, she was honored by President Obama for having completed more than 4,000 hours of service.

Still, Smith says, her greatest reward is helping patients.

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