Creating Robust Volunteer Programs: It’s not about free labor

Not surprisingly, one of the first objections I get for promoting and creating robust volunteer programs for long-term care communities is that it appears that I’m supporting the use of free labor. Nothing could be further from my mind! For sure, there are a lot of regulations and laws governing the use of volunteers but that should not deter you from creating and taking full advantage of a strong volunteer program.

Working Partners

For this reason, I’ve made it my mission to identify and highlight nursing home volunteer programs that have successfully created positive and sustaining partnerships between nursing home paid staff and volunteers. In these programs, paid staff and volunteers compliment one another rather than compete with each other. The professional staff view and embrace their volunteers as an indispensable component for providing great and personalized care. Rather than seeing the volunteers as free labor to be exploited, the staff welcomes them as their working partners. The volunteer is an integral part of the care team and thus rejecting that “us and them” culture.

Like any great program, great volunteer programs do not happen overnight.  Successful volunteer programs like the those that I’ve written about or witnessed first-hand require a careful, sober, well-thought-out, intentional effort guided by professional volunteer managers. The process of creating and sustaining a successful volunteer program involves everyone in the life of the nursing home beginning with the management team, the medical staff, the housekeepers, the dietitians, the social workers, and life enrichment coordinators to name a few.

Labor Laws

 Working with the Department of Labor, unions if they are involved, and other regulatory bodies such as Health and Human Services, in the development of your volunteer program, and the volunteer job descriptions will ensure that duties assigned to the volunteers are not in violation of labor laws and do not give the appearance of replacing staff with free labor. In talking with the Baycrest Health, Director of Volunteers, Janis Sternhill at Baycrest Health in Toronto, during my visit, she said that in 30 years of their volunteer program history, there might have been two or three times when their labor union objected to a job description, but working together they were able to resolve those issues.

 After 25 years of recruiting and training volunteers for nursing homes and witnessing first-hand the impact of outstanding and well-managed nursing home volunteer programs, I am confident in my claim that nursing home owner/operators would do well to make serious investments in their volunteer programs. Current research shows that when you can discover and address the underlying individual needs and desires of the people under your care, you will likely be providing not only quality care but you will be maximizing their quality of life as well, and that means improving customer satisfaction and positive outcomes for them and for your professional staff.

A “listening ear”

Certainly, there is no doubt that the professional staff must be trained to garner to have this deeper level of insight into their resident’s lives and what matters to them. However, the reality is that time may not be on their side. Recently, while visiting someone in a nursing home, the hallway outside the person’s room I was visiting, was chaotic as calls lights were going off, and aides were running about trying to meet everyone’s needs. Discovering underlying needs is one area where volunteers can be very effective. They can be trained to befriend and learn what matters to the person they are visiting. They, the volunteer becomes the “listening ear,” learning and then if appropriate and respecting confidentiality, relaying what they have learned to the professional staff.

Beyond being present for your people, staff in the exemplary programs were surveyed as to what help a volunteer could be trained to provide, again without violating labor laws and or giving the appearance of exploiting people as free labor. From the programs that I have had the privilege of studying, the director of volunteers give the new volunteer a general orientation and training. The volunteer is then asked as to what department or area of the nursing home they would like to be involved. With that knowledge, the volunteer manager then works with the staff in that area to discover what their needs are and how the volunteer may complement their effort.

Community Support

Finally, the volunteer program is not about free labor, it’s about providing community support, for an often overwhelmed care staff. The volunteer program is about exposing people from the community at-large to the long-term care community and like me, and many other people for that matter, going on to become more deeply involved. Lastly, the volunteer program broadcasts the message, “We care. We care enough to go the extra mile to make sure that the people in our care have the very best and that includes great volunteers who have the ‘luxury of time’ to give to your loved-ones.”

Let me help you!

If you would like to learn more about how I can help you create or enhance your nursing home volunteer program, please contact me. I would love the opportunity to help you.

“What to write about?”

           For the past several months, actually since the first weekend in October, I’ve been experiencing some of the most excruciating pain a back injury can offer, or at least it feels that way. Mary and I love to take walks and on Saturday mornings during the summer and into early fall, we like to walk to the farmer’s market near our home to buy our week’s supply of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, corn, and jostle and bump our way through the crowds of people on a similar mission.

            On this particular October Saturday morning, I woke refreshed, got dressed, had my cups of coffee, and with my large green reusable cloth bag folded under my arm, headed off to the market with Mary. As we have many times in the past, we filled our bags with healthy goodies and started our trek back to our home. As we approached the not-so-steep hill that leads to our house, I began to feel a gnawing pain in the lower part of my back. The further up the hill we walked, the worse the pain became.

By the time I was at the top of the hill, I could barely walk.

            For the remainder of the walk home, even though it was on level ground, every step I took triggered a sharp pain in my back that was now radiating down my leg. I was able to make it home on my own accord, but by then my back felt as if someone had hit my back with a baseball bat. My leg was cramped and felt as if it was on fire. Confused as to what was happening to me, I wondered how heavy were the bags of vegetables? Yes, they were much lighter than other things I have carried. I concluded that I must have pulled a muscle.

            The long and short of it is, I did not pull a muscle, confirmed by weeks of physical therapy and then finally an MRI. The MRI clearly showed that a synovial cyst had formed in the lumbar region of my back and was pressing, without mercy on the nerves of my spinal column. The images of this offending “alien”triggered visits to the pain management clinic and a consult with a neurosurgeon.

This story is far from over, as I have a long way to go.

             After ten weeks of enduring this pain, the recent transforaminal epidural steroid injection has provided me with some modest relief, while the scheduled surgery to remove the cyst is still several weeks away.  It’s been a long three months. Standing is still very painful, and walking is even more painful. Getting from the couch to the bathroom and back to the sofa is quite an accomplishment for me these days as is any of the other activities of daily living that I need to perform.

          Through this experience, I have learned how to create coping strategies.For example, I have a countdown timer on my phone set first to the date of the epidural injection (now complete) and now set to the time of my surgery. Also, I have forced myself to continue to work, teaching online courses and writing. Fortunately, I work from home. And finally, I have used my sense of humor to lighten the atmosphere to what could be a very dark time for Mary and me. But what has struck me the most is what I am learning as a care-receiver. Not being able to do things for myself at the drop of a hat is a real eye-opener. Becoming dependent is a humbling experience. Mary has been a real saint through this time making sure that I have what I need, in addition to her caring for our home.

          So, today, as I was thinking about what to write, it occurred to me that I would share my experience with you but then go on to ask you to remember the many, many people living in our communities, that are living in nursing homes, that are depending on someone to care for them. And with that said, I would ask you to remember the men and women who are providing that care.

I would ascribe to them the title as I have to Mary, “Saint.”

           Through this holiday season, while many of us will be in our comfortable homes enjoying the company of family and friends, and good food, the people working in nursing homes will be on the job. They will be selflessly caring for people who have little choice but to depend on them for their day-to-day needs. It makes me wonder what that level of dependency feels like and it makes me grateful for the “saints” who are willing to make sure we have what we need.

           If you know someone who works in a nursing home, I will encourage you to thank them for what they do. For just as I went from being independent to being dependent during an ordinary morning’s walk so might that be with you. Who will be there to care for you? And how grateful might you be for their help?

          If you work in a nursing home, then please accept my heartfelt gratitude for caring for our loved ones living in nursing homes and I wish you the very best for the coming year.

Training for Long-Term Care Volunteers Goes Online!

I am thrilled to announce that “Volunteering in Long-Term Communities” volunteer training is now available online!

My experience…

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.

Online training…

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.

Next steps…

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.

 

Volunteer Programs and Your Public Image

female volunteer with older woman
Volunteers change persceptions…

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 me to learn more about volunteer training programs and what I can do to help you enhance your volunteer program.

How do you recruit 800 volunteers?

art group in tawa

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…