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Volunteers in care homes
– realising their value

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Q, What role can volunteers play in care homes? What are the benefits? Why should providers encourage volunteers?

A. Tracy Whittle, Volunteering in Care Homes Project Manager, National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Compared to other areas of health and social care, very little has been known about the impact of volunteers in care homes, that is until recently.

The Volunteering in Care Homes project was a three-year pilot project funded by the Department of Health to evaluate the impact of volunteers, recruited to social support roles, on older residents’ quality of life. The project evaluation highlighted that volunteers can, indeed, have a profound impact, not only on the social and emotional wellbeing of the residents, but on the care home staff, volunteers and relatives, with the potential for further benefits to the care home business and sector.

That being said, the introduction of volunteers into care homes has not been without its challenges and the learning will enable other providers to avoid the pitfalls and successfully engage volunteers to reap the benefits. However, for volunteering to truly flourish in social care, it needs to be valued by the sector and viewed as integral to the services being provided.

Nature of volunteer involvement

In analysing the findings of the project, volunteers were recruited to roles that had been identified to meet residents’ social needs. The roles were split roughly between one-to-one befriending roles (51%) and activity-based roles (49%), which involved supporting residents individually, or in small groups, in activities that included arts and crafts, reminiscence, cat therapy, boccia and digital skills. Volunteer involvement ranged from a regular, ongoing weekly commitment to irregular and sometimes one-off engagement.

Benefits of volunteers in care homes

Impact on residents

Over the course of the project, 493 residents were supported across 13 care homes. The most significant contribution of volunteers has been on the social and emotional side of residents’ quality of life. For many, the involvement of volunteers has delivered fundamental socialisation, company and ‘someone to talk to’ as well as more substantial, long-term one-to-one befriending relationships and support, helping them settle within the home, adding purpose to their lives, enjoyment, supporting them in overcoming bereavement and, generally, reducing distress and anxiety.

‘She is always laughing in her room when they are there – you can see the smile on her face is completely different to when they are just sitting there…’ [Relative]

The nature of the volunteer roles meant that the residents were provided with mental and physical stimulation. Such activities as reminiscence, games and quizzes, reading the newspaper or simply chatting were ‘keeping them sharper and a bit more interested in their environment for longer’. [Home Manager].

Impact on staff

The evaluation highlighted that the involvement of volunteers had a positive impact on staff satisfaction in terms of their job (68%), retention (61%), stress levels (71%) and feelings of job security (54%). There was concern at the outset of the project that staff would fear that volunteers were replacing their roles, but this did not come out in the evaluation, probably because of the distinct volunteer roles.

Impact on relatives

Many residents who engaged in the project did not have any relatives or visitors. However, where they did, the evaluation also found that volunteers made a difference to relatives too. The main impact being increased satisfaction with the care that their relative was receiving. As well as satisfaction, it can offer peace of mind to relatives and reduce any negative feelings of anxiety or guilt.

Impact on the care sector

  • Adding value

Managers and staff identified that volunteers brought a range of benefits to the home. In addition to the sheer time and resources they contributed, they had added value to and complemented the support that staff were able to provide to residents.

Over the course of two and a half years, the Volunteering in Care Homes project placed 259 volunteers, who provided just under 10,000 hours to support residents. The return on investment broke even 18 months into the project. In the final six months, the value of volunteering exceeded the sum invested by just over £11,000.

  • Supporting regulatory requirements

Volunteers support care homes to respond to the Care Quality Commission’s (CQCs) five Key Lines of Enquiry asked of all care services. They enable residents to live their lives as they wish and, in so doing, evidence that the care home is responsive, caring and effective. The additional eyes and ears of volunteers provides evidence that the residents are kept safe, whilst the act of engaging with the wider community is evidence that the home is well-led.

  • Championing the care home sector

Volunteers can play a significant role in helping the sector challenge some of the misconceptions that the public have about the care home environment, older people and dementia. Volunteers who have had a good experience within the home act as ambassadors and share that positive experience with others. They are the link between the home and the local community, helping to break down barriers and bringing residents and members of the community together.

The project highlighted the reciprocal nature of the volunteer/resident relationship. In addition to the benefits experienced by residents, a number of volunteers recorded that they had gained a range of benefits from their volunteering experience within the care home. These included developing confidence, satisfaction from helping, a sense of community and developing communication skills.

  • Investing in the future

Volunteering should never be used as a replacement for paid staff. However, at a time when the sector is concerned with meeting the demands of an ageing population and a looming staffing shortage, volunteers not only provide additional resource but an opportunity to nurture the workforce of the future. Some younger volunteers in the project were able to see a career in the sector.

Reaping the benefits

The evaluation highlighted that volunteers were overwhelmingly satisfied with various aspects of their volunteer management. However, some volunteers did record dissatisfaction around the lack of substantial ongoing co-ordination and support provided by some care homes. The key barrier to effective volunteer management was lack of staff time, especially in those homes with a high ratio of residents to staff.

Only when volunteering is valued by care homes will it be awarded the required importance and investment to fulfil its potential.

For care homes to maximise the benefits of volunteers, this capacity needs to be found. Without staff time and commitment to the volunteer management role, volunteers will feel unsupported, limiting their potential impact and, in the worst case scenario, leading to a high volunteer turnover. This last point can cause upset to residents and require further work from staff to recruit new volunteers.

The Volunteering in Care Homes Toolkit brings together the practical learning from the project and contains guidance, references to other resources and organisations that can help. It also contains templates on how to set up a volunteering programme in a care home.

Maximising volunteer involvement

Here are some of the top tips for maximising volunteer involvement.

  • Before embarking on developing a volunteering programme, be clear on why you are involving volunteers and their role within the organisation.
  • Involve residents, staff and relatives in the planning.
  • Staff may not have managed volunteers before so you may need to think about training to ensure they have the skills and understanding for the role.
  • Identify a key contact for volunteers before you start the recruitment process.
  • Put in place the necessary policies and procedures.
  • Recruit volunteers who are:
    • Able and willing to commit to the role and provide regular hours.
    • Understand the care home environment and its demands.
    • Have good communication and emotional skills.
  • Provide an induction into the care home and a basic induction training.
  • Dementia awareness needs to be built into this initial training.
  • Offer effective ongoing management of volunteers in co-ordinating day-to-day activities, broader role development and emotional support.

Invest in volunteers

This project has evidenced that volunteers recruited in roles to support the socialisation of residents can have profound impacts, not only on the residents’ social and emotional wellbeing, but on their physical and mental wellbeing. Bringing volunteers into a care home has benefits for staff; reducing their stress levels and leading to job satisfaction. Moreover, it brings peace of mind to relatives and can add a wealth of benefits to the business and sector by adding value, supporting regulatory requirements, improving the reputation of the sector and investing in the future workforce.

The potential benefits of volunteers will only be maximised by care homes investing in the infrastructure to support volunteering. This primarily includes building the skills, understanding and capacity of the staff team to welcome and support volunteers. Support and resources are available to help make this happen but if volunteering is to flourish in care homes, it needs to be valued by the sector and viewed as integral to the services being provided. Regulators and commissioners of care are in a key position to encourage and incentivise volunteering in care homes to support this change. Only when volunteering is valued by care homes will it be awarded the required importance and investment to fulfil its potential.

Tracy Whittle is Volunteering in Care Homes Project Manager at National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Email: Twitter: @NCVOvolunteers

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