The National Volunteer Care Corps is a great beginning!
I think that this is an excellent beginning. I think the stats in the article are a bit understated, however. By 2046 the first of Millennials will begin turning 65 just as the first of the Boomers begin turning 85. This means that by 2050 the numbers of older adults in the U.S. will be approaching 100 million. In other words, we are just at the foot of the Mt Everest.
Every possible resource will be needed to support an ever-aging population. Now is time to start exploring and exploiting every possible resource to include what I call “super” volunteers, i.e., highly committed, self-starters looking for ways to give back to their community. I’ve been training volunteers at this level for about 25 years.
The time for creating a sustainable volunteer force is now!
Without a doubt creating a sustainable volunteer force is hard work and requires expert leadership. Yes, recruiting is tough but setting the bar low only leads to failure. Set the bar high and you will find people that can jump that high. Yes, there will be a fair amount of attrition right up front, but the people that make it through the vetting and training process do not quit. I know this from experience.
Shifting the mentality about volunteers in the U.S. will not be easy but it is necessary if we are to have even a fighting chance for addressing the needs of 100 million older adults.
And to finish, how many people started in long-term care support services as volunteers? I haven’t found any research exploring this question but after 25 years, my guess would be a majority of them. I’m one of them. So, in addition to meeting the needs of older adults wherever they may be living, volunteer programs become a great recruiting tool as well.
As for the “nay-sayers,” my attitude is that there is always going to be that cohort of negative people telling us it can’t be done. I know, they told me that for 25 years. I recruited and trained over 700 volunteers for nursing homes in the meanwhile.
Your comments are welcome…
I welcome your comments and I would encourage you to read my book, “Creating a Volun-Cheer Force” If you’re looking for a keynote speaker or workshop presentation addressing volunteering, working with older adults or the aging well, please contact me.
Discovering the word for compassion in Hawaiian tradition…
I’ve written a few articles on compassion, and so for this one, I decided to do something a little different. I began by pulling up the word compassion on the internet to see what would pop up. My search produced a window with the definition of compassion, and then a “translate ‘compassion’ to” another language box appeared.
I started translating compassion into various languages starting with Afrikaans “medelye,” to Albanian “dhembshuri,” to German “barmherzigkeit,” Haitian Creole “konpasyon,” and then Hawaiian “aloha.” I stopped there because I was always under the impression that the expression “aloha” was an Hawaiian greeting and further research shows that indeed it is. But, I went on to discover that “aloha” means so much more.
Aloha has a deep cultural and spiritual significance…
As it turns out “aloha” has several meanings to include: love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. But to native Hawaiians it has a “deeper cultural and spiritual significance.” To them it also means “to be in the presence of divinity or in the presence of (alo) the “divine breath of life” (Ha). Discovering the phrase “…the power of Aloha…” really piqued my curiosity.
When I searched that phrase, I found “The Power of Aloha: The Hawaiian Guide to Love, Health, and Wealth” by Kala H. Kos and John Selby. With that, I accomplished what I was hoping to gain, i.e., a new insight into the word compassion.
“…the joyful sharing of life in the present moment…”
and Shelby present the traditional meaning of “aloha” as“the joyful sharing of life in the present moment.” Reading that, brought to mind how many times I’ve
spoken to groups about living in the present or practicing the art of presence.
I don’t know if I could think of a better or more accurate way to describe the
exchange that takes place between the visiting volunteer and the nursing home
“…our hearts are singing together…”
Going even deeper, the meaning of “aloha” includes “our hearts are singing together.” Thinking of the relationships and shared experiences that I have had over the years with the people living in nursing homes, I believe this phrase accurately describes what we felt in those moments. Our hearts were singing together.
“…to be joyful together and filled with the breath of life…”
the richness of “aloha” does not end there. The root “ha” means “breath of life.” And so the meaning of “aloha” expands even further
to mean: “…to be joyful together and
filled with the breath of life.” Compassion, “aloha” is to be joyful together
and filled with the breath of life. I’m pretty sure this has an impact on a
nursing home’s star rating. Aloha.
Contact me for more information about how you, as a volunteer can become the “the breath of life” to someone living in a nursing home – or –
If you manage a nursing home volunteer program and want to explore this further, contact me to learn how I can be of help to you. Please e-mail me at email@example.com
I am thrilled to announce that “Volunteering in Long-Term Communities” volunteer training is now available online!
Over the years, I’ve had the extreme pleasure of training hundreds of volunteers in person, but what always lingered in the back of my mind was the question of reaching a wider audience. There are some 15,000 nursing homes in the United States, and many of them cannot afford to hire a dedicated volunteer manager, and if they do have a volunteer manager, it is likely someone splitting their time between activities and managing the volunteers. As a result, training the volunteers may be limited by time and availability of the “trainer.”
My volunteer management experience taught me early on that managing volunteers is not a part-time job. It requires the volunteer manager to not only work hard to recruit volunteers, but it also includes providing meaningful training so that the volunteer feels prepared and is useful in their role.
Volunteers want training…
Volunteer training does not or should not stop after the initial orientation so providing ongoing training is essential for the volunteer to grow in their position. Research shows that volunteers want ongoing training. And finally, the volunteer manager must work to stabilize the volunteer force by putting processes in place that promote volunteer retention.
While I cannot solve the challenges of funding and time, I can develop volunteer training programs specifically designed for people volunteering in nursing homes and make them accessible to everyone and in their own time. This makes the online training platform extremely valuable to volunteer managers and well as the volunteers.
From my experience in instructional design and teaching online gerontology courses, I have learned what people are looking for in an online course. Those same principles come into play as I design courses for the long-term care volunteer. The training should be “lean and deep,” meaning that the training material is presented in clear and understandable language using various learning styles and that it should be interactive to keep the “trainee” engaged and moving forward.
In this new course, there are eight modules. The first module opens by giving context to the volunteer experience presenting the changes that are taking place in our population, i.e., that the number of people 65 years of age and older is exploding. I want the volunteer to understand the magnitude of the need and statistics associated with the people they will be meeting.
However, I’m careful not to paint a “doom and gloom” picture as some do. Instead, volunteering is an opportunity for the community to become more deeply involved in the life of the nursing home to not only enhance “person-centered” care but to learn first-hand about career opportunities.
From there, the next module deals with ageism and the negative stereotypes that influence the way we view aging and older adults. For me, this is an exciting topic because by the end of this module the volunteer realizes that living in the nursing home is far more than just a “waiting to die” station but instead there is the opportunity for learning and personal growth.
The remaining modules present the various functions of a nursing home and levels of care, communications both verbal and non-verbal and of course, HIPAA, Resident Rights and most important what “person-centered” care really means and how the volunteer can support staff in the delivery of that level of care.
If you oversee the volunteer program at your nursing home then, please consider taking advantage of this online training by encouraging your current volunteers and new volunteers to take this course. Doing so will give them in-depth insight into the aging process and offer them new ideas for creating personalized activities for the people living in your community.
If you are someone that has been thinking about volunteering in a nursing home, this course will give you a solid foundation from which you can rely on and grow in during your volunteer experience.
There is nothing more damaging to a volunteer program than to launch people into a volunteer experience unprepared. More often than not, the volunteers become discouraged and likely do not return while you end up with a “revolving door” volunteer program.
Volunteers, adequately trained, stay on the job adding real value to your long-term care community. However, they need critical insight and tools for that to happen. The learning platform I’m using is user-friendly and is accessible either on your computer or mobile device. The modules are easy to navigate and follow a logical progression, building on upon the other.
Please share this article with the people you know that would appreciate having this resource available to them. If you have questions about the training, feel free to contact me and I would be glad to talk to you.
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.
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.
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.
For the past 25 years, I have been advocating for people to visit the people living in nursing homes. So often nursing home residents do not get visitors which may lead to feelings of loneliness and uselessness.
Over the last seven years I have been advocating for nursing homes to not only expand their volunteer programs but to expand the role of the volunteer in their nursing homes.
With the workforce shortage only growing more acute for the foreseeable future, I believe we need to develop and utilize every resource available to ensure that the people living in nursing homes are getting quality care and have quality of life.
Last year, I made it my mission to search out exemplar or premier volunteer programs and to highlight them at VolunCheerLeader.com. To-date I have identified several great programs, but now it is my extreme pleasure to report on and highlight, in my opinion, what I think might be the premier nursing home volunteer program boasting some 900 adult volunteers and 300 youth volunteers. However, it is going to be a bit of a chore for me to keep this article to a reasonable length. Advocates for volunteers will enjoy this reading on a remarkable volunteer program.
During March of 2016, I attended the American Society on Aging conference. I met several like-minded people also advocating for expanding the role of nursing home volunteers. During our conversations, I was encouraged by them to contact the director of volunteer services at Baycrest, in Toronto, Canada.
I contacted Syrelle Berstein. My initial conversations with Syrelle revealed that Baycrest has been training and recruiting volunteers to provide friendly visits, staff support, administrative support, and encouraging the volunteers to create and facilitate their own activities. I was anxious to go there and see the program first-hand.
Over the next several months, Syrelle retired and Janis Sternhill, M.Ed., stepped into the directorship. I stayed in touch with Syrelle and asked if she would facilitate my visit. She graciously agreed. During the week of June 11, 2017, Syrelle immersed me in the Baycrest culture of care and the Baycrest volunteer program. Having developed the program, she could highlight the salient aspects of the program.
On my first full day in Toronto, Syrelle picked me up at 10 a.m. at the apartment where I was staying, (I use Airbnb these days). We drove to the Baycrest campus which was just a few minutes away. As we entered the campus, I was immediately struck by the enormity of the operation. We drove by building after building, passed by a huge parking lot, and cruised alongside the Baycrest childcare center and then we reached the assisted living high-rise. We parked and began to walk towards the Apotex and Jewish Home for the Aged. I thought to myself, as Syrelle explained what was happening in each building, that this campus is not only comprised of all levels of care but it includes a research center and ties to the University of Toronto. In my mind, this is the perfect setup.
As we approached the glass doors, of the Apotex they automatically parted to the left and right, welcoming us into the foyer of the building. Syrelle logged in as she is now a volunteer herself. The tracking system keeps record of who is in the building and what they are doing.
For the volunteer coordinator, this is great as she can report on volunteer activity in near real time and collect data on the volunteer program.
Once Syrelle logged in, we turned to go through another set of glass doors. As they opened, what I saw literally took my breath away. Before me the ceiling burst upward into a large open area, an atrium that extended eight stories upward culminating into a magnificently sky lit ceiling. (see Figure 2) I was stunned! It was exhilarating! I looked at Syrelle in amazement and asked, “Is this the nursing home?” “Yes,” she said with a big smile. It took a few minutes for me to take it all in and to collect myself.
She then gently turned me to the left to see the area where residents, with the help of an army of volunteers, were creating various ceramic pieces and paintings (see Figure 3). This is where I met the first in a series of many Baycrest volunteers, each of them wearing the bright yellow “Baycrest – Volunteer” lanyard and identification badge. The finished items were on display in large picture windows, facing the interior of the atrium. They were quite colorful and added to the ambiance of this beautiful area.
Once I had regained the ability to breathe again, we moved on with our tour of the facility. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or even imagined in regards to a long-term care community.
As we walked and were greeted repeatedly by volunteers and staff, it soon became very apparent to me that Baycrest not only embraces the concept of person-centered care but has successfully created a wonderful authentic, relational culture that is felt from staff to resident, from staff to volunteer, from volunteer to volunteer, and from staff to staff. It was truly amazing. (Amazing was a word I found myself repeating numerous times throughout my stay).
Syrelle arranged for me to attend several of the activities that volunteers were facilitating or for which they were providing support. Our first stop was to a morning session led by a speech pathologist who was assisted by several Baycrest volunteers. In this case, the volunteers could encourage the residents to take part in the exercises while providing some level of comfort and trust for the resident. In some cases, residents feel more comfortable responding to volunteer requests more readily than staff.
Moving on, we attended a comedy hour conceived and facilitated by Baycrest volunteer, Murray. In his early years Murray was a stand-up comic traveling throughout the United States bumping shoulders with the likes of Alan King and Billy Crystal. Today, he was showing clips of his favorite comedians and sharing a few of his own jokes as well. The audience loved it. I’m certain that they received a healthy endorphin boost setting the tone for their upcoming lunch. Murray facilitates this activity weekly.
From there we toured the assisted living area and then had lunch with Larry, the Baycrest volunteer I met in the speech pathology session. From the volunteers that I had the opportunity to meet, Larry represents what I believe Baycrest is looking for in their volunteers, i.e., a high level of commitment, a warm and outgoing personality, possessing the skills to create and/or facilitate activities, having an authentic desire to make a difference in someone’s life, understanding the significance of what they are doing for the staff and residents and finally possessing a great sense of humor. There was a lot of smiling and laughing during my time at Baycrest.
I asked Larry how he came to volunteer at Baycrest. He told me that after retiring he wanted to stay engaged and was seeking out volunteer opportunities. After several unsuccessful tries at various agencies, Syrelle invited him to try Baycrest. That was two plus years ago. He admitted that initially his motivation was not altruistic but rather he just wanted something to do, something where he could make a difference.
Since then he has discovered the richness of volunteering and working with older adults. He recounted stories of his experiences and talked about how much he has learned from the people he has come to know. As with many volunteers, I have interviewed about their experience, Larry too, talked about how much he was getting from the experience and how good it made him feel. This is a theme that is repeated over and over, “I feel like I’m getting so much more than I’m giving.”
In meeting with the new director of volunteer services, Janis Sternhill, I was reminded again, how critical a great director of volunteers is to creating, growing, and maintaining a sustainable volunteer program. Janis’ experience and expert knowledge of volunteer management, research and her obvious passion for both the volunteers and the residents were unmistakable.
As Janis and I talked about the role of the volunteer, Janis addressed the fact volunteers have the time to sit with a resident, get to know them, their likes, their dislikes, their fears, and their joys. Volunteers get to know someone well enough to even know if a smile means they are really happy. “And it’s not just about the time, but it’s also about meeting that honest need to listen to people.”
She continues by saying that the staff are relieved knowing that the resident is relaxed when they go into their room. The resident has a good experience of feeling validated, acknowledged, and like a human being.
“We have volunteers that come onto units and staff cheer because they know the residents are going to be happy…and the staff can focus on those needing their attention.”
I asked Janis if they are measuring the impact of the volunteer visit and she said that the Baycrest researchers have finished two studies. The first two studies focused on the overall engagement of the resident, i.e., how often did they smile, how often did they speak, what were they doing before the volunteer came in, what did they do after the volunteer came in, and what activities were they doing.
The researchers also interviewed staff in the same manner, i.e., what was the staff doing before the volunteer arrived, what were they doing during and after the volunteer visit. Feedback from the staff was included as well, i.e., how was your experience with the volunteer, and what did you notice on the unit when the volunteers were present, what happens when the volunteers are not on the unit?
And in like manner, the volunteers were asked, “How do you feel when you come onto the unit?” “Do you feel a difference when you are with a resident?” A third study is in progress to collect data at the individual level.
Janis talked about all the tasks that volunteers are doing and/or assisting with behind the scenes.
“Right now, volunteers are assisting in collecting data for the client experience surveys. Our quality department could not do these surveys without the volunteers. They are highly trained and it is ongoing. They get a list of clients to survey and then conduct surveys to find out the quality of life. If you get a company to come in here, you won’t get the same level of engagement as there is with a volunteer.”
As I mentioned above, this supports current research that reveals residents are likely to be more open with volunteers rather than professional staff.
The Baycrest Learning Institute Speaker Series (BLISS) is a new addition to the volunteer program. Professionals from Ryerson University came in and trained people to be facilitators who in turn trained volunteers to facilitate groups and give presentations. The goal however, is not the presentation, but the engagement of the residents in the presentation. Janis offered two examples. The first is a pianist who plays a musical piece and then elicits discussion about how the music makes them feel and other engaging questions. In similar manner, a volunteer from Morocco tells her personal story of life growing up in Morocco.
“This program was volunteer created, volunteer run, volunteer trained, and staff are thrilled.”
When I asked Janis about liability issues, her response was not surprising. “All of our volunteers are highly trained, and starting in January  they have to complete learning modules the same as staff do.” We went on to discuss having liability insurance and there was no “new” news on this topic. You evaluate the tasks volunteers will be doing, identity possible vulnerabilities and then create policies and training to reduce the chance of a mishap.
We discussed the budget and how she justifies the volunteer budget. I believe that it is an ongoing task. I suggested that one must connect volunteer activity to the bottom-line, showing that operations budgets are positively impacted when residents, staff, and families are happy.
Janis points out that,
“We cannot attract young people into gerontology if we don’t give them an opportunity to be exposed to caring for older adults. Providing volunteer opportunities provides that exposure. In like manner, what about the thousands of people who are retiring and looking for “something to do?”
From there, I brought up the subject of labor unions. Janis said that overall the relationship with the unions has been very good, she said, “They get it.” There were instances where the union leaders wanted some adjustments made to job descriptions or clarification as to what the volunteer job was and that the volunteer was not replacing a paid employee who had just left the organization. The unions want to understand what the volunteers are doing.
“If we want our volunteers to be healthy and strong, our aging population to be healthy and strong, there has to be a strong governmental support to support volunteerism.”
In meeting with the volunteer coordinator, Tehila Tewel, I had the opportunity to discuss their recruiting, onboarding and training process. It was reassuring to me, as the founder of Community 360°, that Baycrest also has a stringent vetting process and training protocol. For those of you that follow my articles, you know that I am not only a strong proponent of filtering for highly committed individuals but also adequately preparing the volunteers for the roles that they will be assuming. As a result, as it should be clear by now, Baycrest volunteers are embraced by care staff as a valuable and necessary asset in providing not only quality care but quality of life.
Tehila indicated that they host orientation/information session twice a month attended by some 50 prospective volunteers at each one. At those orientations, attendees receive information about Baycrest, working with our clients, programs offered to clients, wheelchair training, volunteer roles and responsibilities. They are also encouraged to apply.
For those that do apply, they then complete six modules of online training and other screenings and tests as required by the Ontario Long-Term Care Act.
Screening continues when they come in for their interview with a highly trained volunteer interviewer who will place them in the program that matches their skills and Baycrest’s needs. There are many specialized volunteer programs that have been created which require more hands-on training and education. Some of these are offered on-line and others are in classrooms settings. Most of the on-line courses and specialized training provide certificates upon completion. Volunteers are thrilled have the opportunity to learn from our professionals.
As with Community 360°, the attrition rate is high upfront but low on the back-end. One thing I have learned in this process is that no matter how desperate one may be for volunteers, simply putting warm bodies in place will not result in an effective or sustainable volunteer program. Filtering for and training highly committed volunteers is a more difficult path but one that will produce the kind of volunteer program that is in place at Baycrest.
Without exception, volunteers, wearing the yellow “Baycrest – Volunteer” lanyard could be seen everywhere and not just a few. It was so remarkable and refreshing to see, not only the incredible number of volunteers, but that they were truly making a positive impact on the quality of care and quality of life for the people living at Baycrest as well as the staff of Baycrest.
If you are a director of volunteers or are in the process of establishing a volunteer program in your long-term community, please take a good look at the Baycrest volunteer program.
Note: I could have written so much more about the program. For the sake of space and time, I will reserve my full account of this program for my upcoming book: “The Volun-Cheer-Factor.” Stay tuned!
Perceptions are everything. From my earliest days of military training to the present, I have been taught and now am teaching my own students and volunteers that perceptions powerfully influence the way people think and react. This holds true for nursing homes as well. Recruiting volunteers is challenging particularly when it comes to recruiting volunteers for nursing homes.
Several common questions I am asked by people I approach, “Will I get sick?” or “Are they kinda of senile?” reveals the perceptions people harbor when they think about nursing homes. They might think nursing homes are depressing, that people won’t even know I am there, I will get sick from being around the residents, it’s just a place where people are waiting to die. What people perceive becomes reality for them.
Poor public perception negatively impacts the quality of care as it leads to inadequate staffing and high turnover rates that can reach 100%, (Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, 2007). This means turning staff over every year! Imagine running a business having to hire and train new staff every year!
Volunteers can correct faulty perceptions of nursing homes. The volunteer becomes the bridge between the local nursing home and the community. The volunteer visits the nursing home befriending residents and staff. During their visits they are likely to encounter care staff who are highly committed and passionate about the care they provide and likely to encounter, what I like to call, “a living history book,” that is an older person with a life time of experiences to share.
Afterwards, the volunteer returns to their community sharing with their friends, neighbors, co-workers and others the marvelous stories, expressions of love and caring, and the deep need we all carry for relationships. The volunteer becomes the vehicle to correct the wrong-thinking and negative perceptions. One volunteer observed,
“I went in to dazzle them, but instead they dazzeled me.”
I am always looking for new volunteers, bridge-builders if you will allow me the metaphor. I am passionate about volunteers, recruiting them, training them and then having become a viable part of the care team. Among the many great benefits of the volunteer, is that they will become a positive image builder between your facility and the community.
Please contact meto learn more about volunteer training programs and what I can do to help you enhance your volunteer program.
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!
As you know, VolunCheerLeader is on a quest to identify and highlight outstanding volunteer programs. My journey is taking to me many different places to include Auckland, New Zealand. Recently, while explaining my mission to someone they immediately piped up and said, “You have to meet Jill Woodward, CEO of Elizabeth Knox Nursing Home and Hospital. After a series of emails, we scheduled a telephone call (Skype) and to no real surprise to me, the person who answered the call, Jill, was obviously full of passion, high energy and expert in her work. I spent about an hour talking with her. Later, I had the pleasure of meeting the Kristen O’Reilly, newly appointed to head Community Partnerships. Kristen was originally hired to develop the volunteer program for Knox. Here are excerpts from my communications with them. Read more…
One of the first questions I get from owner/operators of nursing homes concerning volunteers is, “What about liability?”
My response: “What about it?” How many people are working in nursing homes today who have never had a course in gerontology? How many people are on nursing home floors right now providing cares for which they received no training or the person before them “trained” them in “this is how I do it.” How many lawsuits are currently being levied at long-term care facilities. Now before you send me your email about how many great people are working in nursing homes, save it. I know this from first-hand experience. In the 25 years or so of working with the long-term care community, maybe I’ve met five people who I thought were in the wrong job.
My point is that the answer to the liability question is “thorough vetting, quality training and treating and valuing volunteers as employees.”
With that said, I know from experience that there are people in our communities that are willing to be thoroughly vetted and trained being motivated not by the need for income but rather their need to engage in a meaningful way by giving back to their communities while sharing a passion for serving older adults. I would suggest that this person, this volunteer, will present less of liability problem than paid staff. Now if you’re going to send me email about volunteers replacing paid staff, save it.
We’re now approaching 1.2 million vacancies in long-term care staffing.
The ship is sinking. We need all hands on deck. We need to take advantage of every resource that is available to us, to include what I call “trusted” volunteers.
Ok, go ahead send me your comments and emails anyway.
Really, I would like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The history of volunteers and their role in nursing homes is of great interest to me at the moment. I’m writing about the evolution of the volunteer role in nursing homes before and after the Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987.
There is no doubt that the NHRA brought about significant and positive changes to the way older adults were viewed and how they received care.
However did we inadvertently hamstring nursing home volunteers in the process?
I think we did. From my experience in training what I am now calling “super” volunteers, I’ve learned these volunteers could be doing so much more to support the nursing home staff. All they need is quality training. Over the years, I have reviewed the volunteer training literature of many nursing homes. I’ve discovered that not even the basics of the aging process are covered in that training or what the nursing home experience is like for the older adult much less adding training for certain skills. And in many cases there is no training at all!
“There are people in our communities who have a strong passion for older adults and have a strong commitment to serve them.”
Looking at the current nursing home staffing crisis, can we afford not to take advantage of every resource that is available to us? If providing “person-centered” care is truly our goal, then who is in a better position to provide that individualized attention? Even though care staff receive training in how to provide person-centered care, the stark reality is they don’t have time to provide that kind of care. Short staffing prevents them from doing so.
Volunteers have the luxury of time.
I need your help. If you, or if you know of someone who worked as an administrator, director of nursing, volunteer coordinator, or activity director during the days prior to the Nursing Home Reform Act (prior to 1987), please have them contact me at: email@example.com
I want to learn as much as I can about the role volunteers played during those days and how their roles changed after 1987.
Thanks and have a great week!
Discovering volunteers as a work-ready resource for nursing homes.