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In the News Creature Comforts at ZSFG

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Creature Comforts at ZSFG

Annalie Nillson, RN poses with her creature comfort pet dog, cat and little Red Robin.

Meet Annelie Nilson, RN, CNS – a Clinical Nurse Specialist with our Acute Care for the Elders (ACE) unit here at ZSFG. She was a recent panelist at the AgeIn “Creature Comforts” event at Ruth’s Table hosted by “At Home with Growing Older” – a forum, network and resource for the challenges of an aging society – where she shared some of the innovative programs we have available for our elderly patients here at ZSFG to a full house of over 70 participants.

As a certified “Senior Friendly Facility,” Annelie and her team have been working on ways to make hospital stays even more comfortable at ZSFG. She and her team provide care to elderly patients to try to prevent functional decline by mobilizing patients and preventing delirium. Aside from providing compassionate care – she often goes outside the box to engage in care. “Often times, giving a little extra can go a long way.” From providing something as simple as reading glasses, fidget toys or pocket talkers (a pocket-sized device that is equipped with a built-in mic and headphone that amplifies voices and sound), to providing companionship while creating opportunities to engage through innovative technologies – Annelie’s office is filled with many trinkets, toys and wonder.

One example of this are the robotic dogs and cats her team provides to elderly patients with dementia. The (robotic) dogs and cats purr and bark, but mostly, they bring joy to the patients. Annelie shares that there is tactile simulation through the simple act of petting the (robotic) dog or cat. It often brings a sense of calm and companionship. Many San Francisco patients are separated from real-life furry loved ones during their stay in the hospital. This program, partially funded by the 2021 Hearts Grant from the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, also encourages conversations for patients who are more withdrawn. The patients can name their pet, cuddle with their pets, and also give health care providers an opening for conversation. “Who do we have here?” or “What’s the name of your cat?” In one instance, a patient was such a fan of her nursing assistant at ZSFG that she named her furry robotic companion after her – Ruby. It filled the unit with laughter.

Annelie shares that robotic pets may not be for everyone, though. Take for example another elderly patient who was receiving care at ZSFG a few years ago. The wheel-chair bound patient was extremely withdrawn and always kept to the themselves. No matter how hard the team tried, they wouldn’t engage. It wasn’t until one afternoon, where a group of musicians equipped with guitars and trumpets, organized by Dr. Jeff Critchfield, our Chief Medical Experience Officer and Medical Director of Risk Management, gathered on the 7th floor rooftop garden of Building 25 as they often did, pre-COVID. Patients gathered around to enjoy the live music that filled the open-air garden, but it was one patient in particular that seemed to enjoy the mini-concert the most. This sparked an idea in Annelie. She leaned over to the patient and said, “I have a harmonica in my office. Would you like to join in?” The patient’s eyes lit up immediately and they nodded. As it turns out, this patient was a famous harmonica player back in their hometown in Hungary, something the unit only learned after the patient happily joined in on the ensemble during the event – as the patient seemed to transform into a completely different person, or their old self – now with harmonica in hand.

Annelie has been with ZSFG for the past 17 years and with the ACE team for the past 10. “I love talking to older patients and hearing their story and wisdom. They’re each so impressive in their own ways. It’s amazing what you can learn from just speaking with them.” She encourages everyone listen to each other’s stories – especially from the older generation. There are different ways to make people feel calm and comfortable – “we have a responsibility to just try. That’s why we’re here.”

ZSFG has a volunteer program that allows folks to spend a few hours a week with the elderly patients – in conversation and companionship. Volunteers should be at least 18 years of age. If you’re interested in participating, email

We thank Annelie and her team for their truly compassionate care they provide – creating a home away from home – to the elderly population here at the certified “Senior-Friendly” ZSFG.

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Or go to your nearest emergency room.

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