LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — It's a heartbreaking consequence of an aging population - an increasing number of hospitalized Angelenos are living in lonely existence.
To make a difference where medicine cannot, some hospitals are doing something unique to improve the plight of their unvisited patients.
Dr. David Reuben, a geriatrician, said he is still haunted by the image of one of his patients suffering not from the pain of his illness, but from excruciating lonliness.
"There was no one with him. I can still see his face staring into space," Reuben recalled.
Ed Cifareli, 68, of Lancaster can relate. "If I tell a joke. It's rare if I don't get someone to laugh," he said.
But lately, Cifareli has not had much of an audience. For the past three weeks, he's been laid up in the hospital as waves of pain and delirium come and go.
"I don't have anybody. My family, they're gone," he said.
If not for volunteer visitor like Julia Torrano, Cifareli's only encounters would be with doctors and nurses.
"Every time I come in, there's people here who need someone to sit with them," Torrano said.
"We're there for a few moments here and there. We can't be there all the time for them, and they need it," Reuben said.
At hospitals all over Southern California, there are unvisited patients - often seniors who are far from their families.
"You see patients who have no family to come," Torrano said. "It's suprising how many people don't have visitors."
Dr. Reuben said loneliness can be a medical problem."The people who are lonelier do worse," he said.
To ease the burden at Santa Monica UCLA medical center, Reuben started a program called Companion Care Program.
Volunteers wearing green shirts like Torrano take the reigns where medicine leaves off.
Other local hospitals are also addressing the plight of the unvisited.
At Adventist hospitals in L.A. and Simi Valley and Providence hospitals throughout Southern California, a program called No One Dies Alone trains volunteers to provide companionship to patients who are afraid.
"It's very scary," one patient said.
"Just having someone there to distract us from the symptoms we're having really helps us in the healing process," Reuben said.
Torrrano said she plays poker with patients, talk to them or simply watch TV with them. "Mostly, I like to ask them about their lives."
To Cifareli, simple tasks like that meant the world to him. He doesn't remember every visit. At his sickest, he was always coherent.
"Doesn't make a difference. It's that moment of not being afraid. It's that experience while they were there," Reuben explained.
If you would like to volunteer, contact a hospital in your neighborhood and ask if they could use any volunteer visitors.
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