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Patient Partners

A new pilot project will help seniors attend to their medical issues

Jewish Family Service and Jewish Seniors Agency collaborate on PATIENT PARTNERS

Patty Harwood & Mary Fernandez, Patient Partners

Patty Harwood & Mary Fernandez, Patient Partners Coordinator

Do you have beloved elderly relatives who live far from you? Do you worry about who is helping them with their medical appointments? While you may not be able to help those far-flung relatives, you could be a perfect volunteer for a pilot project, PATIENT PARTNERS, that Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island (JFS), in collaboration with Jewish Seniors Agency (JSA), anticipates launching in early June, said Patricia Harwood, LICSW, Director of Older Adult Resources at JFS.

Even for the healthiest and ablest of us, doctors’ visits can be stressful, time-consuming and confusing: Have I completed the medical forms the office sent me? Do I have my list of prepared questions for the nurse practitioner about the new medication? Will I get in and out of the office in time to pick up my son at the dentist? Those challenges are even more true for senior citizens, who may have mild dementia or multiple illnesses that mean they have frequent appointments with a host of different health care providers, said Harwood.

“Seniors visiting their physicians alone can find such appointments can be overwhelming, confusing and lonely” said Erin Minior, CEO of JFS, “and JFS wanted to transform such negative experiences into more supportive and meaningful encounters.”

Even seniors with local family members must often visit their doctors alone, if those local family members don’t have the flexibility to accompany their relative to all their medical appointments; other seniors have no family in town to help them, said Harwood. “Our trained patient partner volunteers will visit senior citizens before their doctors’ appointments to identify and clarify key questions and concerns, accompany the seniors to their appointments (in their own cars or on public transportation), serve as an extra set of ‘eyes and ears’ for the seniors, act as a liaison to their family members and complete a brief report summarizing each visit.”

Having that extra set of “eyes and ears” is more than just comforting, it may be essential: Studies show that half of us leave our doctors’ offices unsure of what we need to do to take care of ourselves, and only 15 percent of patients fully understand what our doctors have said to us, JFS notes.  

“Patients who understand their doctors are more likely to acknowledge their health problems, understand their treatment options and follow their medication schedules,” said Minior. “Those who don’t, suffer adverse health consequences.”  In fact, positive physician-patient communications have been shown to lead to reduced blood sugar levels, lower blood pressures, reduced pain and overall improved health in people with a variety of illnesses. “We are grateful to the Grace K. Alpert Foundation for funding this important new initiative.”

While the volunteer is not expected to commit to taking the senior to every single medical appointment he or she has, Harwood said that both JFS and JSA hope to match each senior with a specific volunteer for continuity and consistency for the senior, his or her medical providers and the volunteer.

If you have patience and a flexible weekday schedule, JFS and JSA want to hear from you. Volunteers who have some knowledge of or experience in the health care sector are especially encouraged to consider participation. An extensive initial training session for PATIENT PARTNERS will address issues of confidentiality, ethics, medical terminology, etc., said Harwood, and volunteers will gather every other month for briefer sessions.

For more information about volunteering, contact Mary Fernandes at Mary@jfsri.org or 331-1244 or Susan Adler at Sadler-jeri@jsari.org or 351-4750.

By Nancy Kirsch

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