Volunteers dressed up as Raggedy Anns and Andys are no longer allowed to wear their costumes when visiting patients at Santa Barbara and Goleta Valley Cottage hospitals, a change retired nurse Sherry Morez says is a major loss.

After complaints surfaced about the costumes last year, the volunteers were still allowed to visit, but had to change their outfits. Morez, a former nursing director of pediatrics, was actually a volunteer Raggedy Ann herself.  During that stint as a volunteer, Morez saw mostly elderly patients who had few visitors and she helped them face whatever illness they were there for.

“To me, the (Raggedy costume) was the essence of it,” she told Noozhawk. “That’s what enabled you to befriend the patients. To me, it’s sad they’ve lost that.”

The group behind the effort, the nonproft Adventures in Caring, operates the same program in nursing homes across Santa Barbara and hospitals in Pennsylvania and Texas. In October, the group was told it would have to get rid of the costumes at Cottage Health System hospitals, according to executive director Simon Fox.

Adventures in Caring volunteers have traded their Raggedy Ann and Andy costumes for blue bowling shirts with buttons that say 'I'm Here to Listen.'

Adventures in Caring volunteers have traded their Raggedy Ann and Andy costumes for blue bowling shirts with buttons that say “I’m Here to Listen.” (Adventures in Caring photo)

“We faced a choice,” he said. “Do we end a well-loved program that served Cottage continuously for 26 years, or do we invent a new way of doing this without the Raggedy costume?”

Fox said Adventures in Caring has seen more than 100,000 patients with the program, and the volunteers felt they owed it to patients to come up with a different plan. The group spent several months on a redesign and its new program began last month with a new theme: “First Aid for the Heart and Soul.” Now, volunteers, most of whom are from UCSB and studying in health-care fields, wear a blue bowling shirt with a button that says “I’m Here to Listen.”

Cox said he was told there were complaints from family members of patients who either had brain injuries or were under heavy amounts of medication and thought they were hallucinating.

“My understanding was that it was a handful of complaints,” he said.

But the complaints were more numerous than that, according to Cottage Health System spokeswoman Janet O’Neill, who confirmed that the volunteers haven’t been dressed up since last year.

“This really arose out of a groundswell of complaints from patients and visitors who thought it was inappropriate for life-sized dolls to be wandering around the hospital,” she said.

The program is still active at the hospital and O’Neill commended the volunteers’ work.

“It’s great,” she said. “They do a lot of good.”

But the costumes are out.

“It doesn’t work in this day and age, to tell you the truth,” O’Neill said. “Patients are much sicker and they’re in for much shorter times.”

Cox said the program is based on quality listening skills.

“Paradoxically, it’s not about the Raggedys, its about patients,” he said.

Many patients are facing a serious illness alone, and “they have nobody to visit them,” he said.

“The Raggedy persona has always been perfectly cut out for that job,” he said, adding that it’s a nonthreatening character. “They’re just a friend who has shown up to listen.”

It’s not just about dressing up, either, Fox said.

“Volunteers have to have the emotional maturity to be able to talk with someone who might be dying,” he said.

“The Raggedy persona was great because it brought an instant smile,” he said. “It’s a bit more difficult without that.”

Patients can choose whether to have visitors, including the volunteers. The Adventures in Caring volunteers are still finding they can have a good conversation with patients, but when someone says no, Fox said it’s more personal now. Introductions take longer, and the transition to a meaningful conversation does, too, he said.

“People don’t quite so readily ask for a hug,” he said. “We can’t replace that.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Intern Erin Stone can be reached at estone@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.