As promised, VolunCheerLeader.com will highlight great volunteer programs and promote the idea that volunteers, i.e., “super” volunteers can take on increased responsibilities to become a trained and meaningful support for professional care staff who are often stressed and overworked, with residents, patients who suffer from what Dr. Bill Thomas calls the “Three Plagues: boredom, uselessness and loneliness.”
Daily, I’m on social media watching for hints of such programs and to my great delight, this title appeared in Twitter: “Volunteer Service for Nursing Home Residents.” I immediately clicked on it, and discovered Emilie Strommen Olsen, senior program designer for DesignIt. She and her team developed a nursing home volunteer program for a facility in Kristiansund, Norway. I immediately emailed her and arranged a Skype interview with her and the administrator of the nursing home, Stephanie Helland.
Dr. Bill Thomas talks about the “Three Plagues of the Nursing Home, boredom, uselessness, and loneliness.” This is exactly what was happening at Stephanie’s facility. The residents were not engaged, they sat day in and day out with little or no activity. The staff observing this, felt frustrated and sad as they were only able to meet the very basic needs of the older adults under their care. Because of that Emilie says they would express remorse, a sense of guilt because they felt as if they were not doing enough – that they couldn’t give the people what they really needed – time and friendship. The families of the residents expressed the same sense of helplessness and ask:
Can’t someone do something about this?
Emilie took on the challenge and began with assigning some “homework” to the staff, the residents and the families. She ask them: “What kind of volunteer services do you want?” The answer was crystal clear:
“We want just one person to talk to and do “normal” stuff, not big activities where everyone participates at once.”
With that, then Emilie’s team went to work using the input she received from the three stakeholders. It was critical that the staff be involved in this process early so as to get buy-in from the staff.
“It was really one of the success factors, that at the start, the staff was involved all the time during the process…so that they felt that they owned it.”
Emilie developed a matrix with staff member positions in rows and responsibilities in the columns. Everyone had a role to play, in the process from interviewing the volunteer candidate to orienting them to the nursing home environment to assigning them to an area of the nursing home and finally staff and volunteers meeting periodically for followup.
Stephanie said that the implementation was very smooth. She laughed and said: “It was almost done without anyone noticing!” A large chart was posted to inform both the staff and volunteers of their responsibilities, who would be volunteering that week and who they would be visiting.
During the test period, Stephanie did hear concerns from the staff that the volunteers might be taking over their tasks and thus eliminating the need for staff. She assured them that this was not the case. The volunteers were there to provide emotional support and meaningful activities that would promote their sense of well-being and quality of life.
Once the staff understood what was happening they began to realize that the volunteer was indeed opening up more time for them by occupying the residents. The staff felt welcomed relief.
Emilie and Stephanie highlighted some important lessons learned so far:
- Volunteers want to feel welcomed and appreciated.
- Volunteers want to be guided by the staff
As a result, one of the volunteer positions is to be the “volunteer greeter.” As volunteers arrive for their visit, a veteran volunteer greets them!
Volunteers wear a button that has a red heart on it. This way the staff and older adults know that this is a volunteer. The professional staff wear a button with a blue heart.
I asked Stephanie to describe the typical volunteer. She explained that they are getting people of all ages, from 16 years of age and up, mothers on maternity leave who want to still feel like they can make a difference, and retirees who bring their skills and expertise to their volunteer experience.
One volunteer explained that he was in the process of looking for a new job, one that wouldn’t interfere with his nursing home visits.
“Volunteering is an emerging concept in Norway,” says Emilie. “Places like Britain have a long rich history of volunteerism but for us it is a new trend. People are asking: ‘How can I be a resource?’ ‘How can I give to my society?'”
Finally, I asked Stephanie if the volunteer program has made a real impact. “Definitely! We’ve seen changes in our residents. One of our patients with dementia will talk even hours later about the visit she had with her ‘buddy.’ Other patients will say:
Today my buddy is coming to visit me, only me, just to me…”
For the staff, Stephanie says there has been a definite change in the way they think about volunteers. They told me, “If we are going to prioritize some positions, we have to prioritize a volunteer coordinator, because that is such important work.
We’d rather you prioritize the volunteer coordinator than a nurse.”
For me, it was a great thrill to see this group discover the positive impact volunteers can have on the staff, on the people for whom they care, and their families and loved ones. It’s important to note that the success of this program is due to querying the stakeholders, collecting their ideas, careful program development to address the expressed needs of the stakeholders, and then gaining the confidence of the staff through their involvement in program development from the beginning.
Thank you Stephanie for meeting the challenge and for being an important factor in the emerging idea that volunteers can make a real difference. And thank you Emilie for guiding them through this process. I’m sure there will be follow ups to this story!
If you known of a great volunteer program, please let me know. Let’s come together, here at VolunCheerLeader.com to promote an expanded role for volunteers and the creation of what I call the “super” volunteer!
Feel free to email me with your VolunCheerLeader story at: firstname.lastname@example.org