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

An older and younger woman embracing one another

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.

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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