Recognizing the Value of Volunteers

Helping hands

When you think about a volunteer what comes to your mind?

I see someone who is engaged, aware of his or her community needs and committed to helping others.  Not remaining mere spectators, they step up to the plate to contribute their time, skills, and their knowledge to meet those needs.

They have the ability to lend a helping hand without any expectation of payment for their efforts but they will likely walk away from the experience with a deep sense of personal satisfaction of having helped someone.

However, what about the volunteers in a nursing home do they really add anything to the environment or are they just “…another thing to manage?”

Anne Gross wrote one of the earliest articles I could find concerning the value of volunteers.  At the time, she wrote the article “Why Nursing Homes Need Volunteers” in 1961, she was the director of volunteer services at Mt. Zion Hospital and Medical Center in San Francisco.

At the hospital she observed that the obligation of the facility goes beyond just providing shelter, and medical care and extended to providing for the emotional support of the “involuntary patient” (Gross, 1961).

According to Gross, the volunteer can offer something that the care staff cannot offer, i.e., the “luxury of time.” 

Daily activities of living such as deciding for oneself what to wear each day and getting dressed can be transformed into a hectic impersonal routine (Claxton-Oldfield, Gosselin, & Claxton-Oldfield, 2009) when performed by care staff who may be responsible for picking out clothes and dressing several dozen people each morning.

laughing together
“…relational care.”

Conversely, the volunteer has the “time” to talk with the person, asking what they would like to wear, picking out the clothes and then getting dressed.  The nursing home resident’s sense of control is restored and now they have the opportunity to express their personal tastes, likes and dislikes.  This “luxury of time” extends to many aspects of the resident’s daily life in the nursing home.

Volunteer groups such as the “Silver Spoons” (Musson, Frye, & Nash, 1997) showed that volunteers could be trained to feed residents.  For the nursing aide mealtime can mean sitting in the middle of a circular table surrounded by residents that need help with eating.

The experience becomes a mechanical effort for everyone involved in getting the chore completed as quickly as possible in contrast to a volunteer who transforms the chore into a leisurely meal filled with conversation.

These are only two of many examples I could give showing how a volunteer can contribute to the nursing home environment.  However, does the staff recognize the value of a volunteer?

I bring this up because volunteers that have not been trained or have received little training may not be a help to the staff but rather may create more work for the staff.  When this happens the staff become resistant to the presence of volunteers seeing them as “one more thing to manage” (Berta, Laporte, & Kachan, 2010).

Volunteers want training; they enjoy the sense of mastery, i.e., believing they have the skills to provide real help.  The difficulty is of course is that far too often volunteers receive little or no training.  Because of this, staff is likely to have a dim view of the volunteer.

With increasing demands on the long-term care community and their staff, volunteers can play a key role in providing real and valuable help, if they receive quality training.

In addition, staff needs training to recognize the value of the volunteer realizing that the volunteer can complement the care staff by offering “personalized” help in many of the non-medical tasks.

This level of training needs to be emphasized in the long-term care community.  In the end, the nursing home becomes more than just shelter and food; it becomes a place where volunteers working along side professional care staff provide for the needs of the whole person.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

References

Berta, W., Laporte, A., & Kachan, N. (2010). Unpacking the relationship between operational efficiency and quality of care in Ontario long-term care homes. Canadian Journal on Aging, 29(4), 543–556. doi:10.1017/S0714980810000553

Claxton-Oldfield, S., Gosselin, N., & Claxton-Oldfield, J. (2009). Imagine you are dying: would you be interested in having a hospice palliative care volunteer? The American journal of hospice & palliative care, 26(1), 47–51. doi:10.1177/1049909108327026

Gross, A. (1961). Why nursing homes need volunteers. The Modern Hospital, 97(4), 101–103.

Musson, N., Frye, G., & Nash, M. (1997). Silver spoons: Supervised volunteers provide feeding of patients. Geriatric Nursing, 18(1), 18–19.

Down Under: Relationship-Centered Care – Part II

As promised here is Part II, sharing what I’ve learned from Daniella Greenwood’s work at Arcare located in Australia.  What is becoming very apparent to me is that caring for someone is not a one-way street.  In fact, the way person-centered care is currently being implemented really only addresses one side of the equation – the care receiver. Read more…

Down Under: Relationship Centered Care

picture of daniella greenwood
Daniella Greenwood

It all started when someone tweeted the link to a video entitled, “It Takes a Community.”  Curious, I clicked on the link to watch it. The video starts off like many promotional videos but about 30 seconds into this video, I realized there was something very special going on here.  The sincerity and authenticity of the people being interviewed was very real. Their passion and love for the people they are serving was riveting. Read on…

Kristiansund kommune

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 Emilie Strømmen Olsendelight, this title appeared in Twitter: “Volunteer Service for Nursing Home Residents.” I immediately clicked on it, and Kristiansund kommune (2)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 heKristiansund kommune (1)r and arranged a Skype interview with her and the administrator of the nursing home, Stephanie Helland. 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.Kristiansund kommune (5)

“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 Kristiansund kommune (1)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.

Kristiansund kommune (8)

Emilie and Stephanie highlighted some important lessons learned so far:

  1. Volunteers want to feel welcomed and appreciated.
  2. 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!

Kristiansund kommune (3)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?'”

Kristiansund kommune (6)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: paul@voluncheerleader.com