Hospital Volunteers Provide Oasis for Family Caregivers


Program Coordinator Lynette Olmo (right)
introduces Linda Horn, wife of a Montefiore
patient, to the essentials of “caring for the
caregiver” as well as the patient, at the
Arthur D. Emil Family Caregiver Support Center.

Nothing could have prepared Linda and Sheldon Horn for the news they received from doctors at Montefiore Medical Center one Monday in February. Sixty-four-year-old Sheldon, who had been feeling flu-like and a little short of breath, was in serious cardiac distress, needed to be placed immediately on a mechanical heart pump, and would need a heart transplant.

Mr. Horn faced difficult and life-threatening procedures. But Mrs. Horn, too—like the 42 million Americans who care for a seriously or chronically ill loved one—was under great stress, as she adjusted to the sudden discovery of her husband’s serious condition, took in a plethora of new and complex medical terms, and helped manage Mr. Horn’s care—all while working full-time as a sales manager. “It was unbelievably hard to hold it all together,” she says.

So when staff from the surgical waiting room at Montefiore’s Moses Campus introduced Mrs. Horn to the Arthur D. Emil Family Caregiver Support Center—a project established in 2011 with a grant from the United Hospital Fund—they were extending her a lifeline.

HELPING CAREGIVERS CARE

“The atmosphere in the Center is so welcoming and supportive, a peaceful place to think and rest,” she says. “The volunteers helped me and my family with practical logistics—like getting a weekly parking pass, finding a nearby hotel room when we got snowed in, and printing out information. But, most important, they also held my hand, and asked about my needs. They know that if you’re not feeling strong, it’s impossible to take care of someone else.”

Mrs. Horn’s experience is just the kind of feedback Center Director Randi Kaplan, MSW, likes to hear—and hears often. Since the Center opened, its 14 volunteers have served more than 3,800 family caregivers. At the heart of the program’s success: careful selection of volunteers, a thorough training program, close supervision by a social worker, and access to information tailored specifically for family caregivers.

“We are very selective in choosing our volunteers,” explains Ms. Kaplan. “We look for individuals who have a palpable level of maturity, who are empathic yet also respectful of personal boundaries.” The volunteers come from culturally diverse backgrounds; most are retired and college-educated, and many have had personal experience as family caregivers.

All volunteers complete a ten-session training program on critical skills: identifying caregivers in need of support, and referring them to a social worker when necessary; understanding the additional challenges for caregivers with limited English proficiency and low socioeconomic status; the role of spirituality and religion; “active listening” techniques; role playing; confidentiality issues; and more.

Another essential part of the training, conducted by United Hospital Fund staff, is mastering the Fund’s Next Step in Care website (www.nextstepincare.org), which provides dozens of easy-to-use guides and checklists to help family caregivers navigate the health care system, especially as their loved ones move from one care setting to another, a time of increased risk.

BUILDING ON INITIAL SUCCESS

From all indications, the Center’s model is gaining momentum within and outside the hospital. With a new grant from the Fund, Ms. Kaplan and her team are in the process of replicating the program at Montefiore’s Weiler campus. And the hospital recently decided to enlarge the Center’s space at the Moses campus.

Staff are also actively spreading the word about the Center’s approach and impact—participating in a national consortium of seven hospitals that have established similar programs for caregivers, and making a presentation at a recent Greater New York Hospital Association meeting on strategies to engage patients and families.

“As funders, we always look for effective projects that will continue and thrive even when our grant funding ends, and we like to see active plans for promoting innovative models to the broader community,” says Deborah Halper, vice president for education and program initiatives at the Fund. “This project is clearly succeeding on both of these fronts.”

This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Blueprint, the Fund's print newsletter. Sign up to receive your free subscription to Blueprint and other Fund newsletters and announcements of your choice.

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