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.

Author: Paul Falkowski

Dr. Paul Falkowski is an advocate for  expanding the role of volunteers in long-term care settings. Using state-of-the-art training techniques, Dr. Falkowski has trained and placed hundreds of volunteers in nursing homes in Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln.  Paul has recently moved the training program online to make the training accessible to anyone. He has a passion for life and living, he values owning our responsibility to others and having the courage to do the right thing. His vision is discovering volunteers as a work-ready resource to enhance the quality of life for people living and working in nursing homes.

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