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Developing the role of volunteers in care homes

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Research in care homes found that where properly supported, volunteers can improve the wellbeing of residents, relatives and even staff

Around 3 million volunteers are involved in the UK’s health and social care services yet despite some excellent examples, volunteering is generally underdeveloped in care home. As John Kennedy’s recent review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation questioned: “a flourishing volunteering movement supporting care homes would be great. It exists in hospices, why not care homes? What is it that makes care homes so off limits?”.

In this context, NCVO’s Volunteering in Care Homes Project worked with local care homes and Volunteer Centres to recruit volunteers to undertake befriending and activity-based roles in both residential and nursing homes.

The evaluation found that 89% of staff thought volunteers had contributed major or moderate positive impacts in their care home overall. Through in-depth interviews with residents it was clear that the biggest benefit was on their social and emotional wellbeing. Involving volunteers delivered fundamental socialisation, company and ‘someone to talk to’. This included providing long term one-to-one befriending, helping them to settle in the home, support in overcoming bereavement and reducing distress and anxiety.

‘They have sort of become part of the home. It is just the most brilliant thing’ - Activities coordinator

The involvement of volunteers was also perceived to have boosted mental and physical wellbeing both by directly providing mental and physical stimulation (through such activities as reminiscence, walking, reading the newspaper) and through the indirect link between improved wellbeing and improved physical health. This backs up emergent evidence showing loneliness and lack of social interaction is detrimental to health.

‘If you get the social right, the physical and the mental wellbeing come after it’ - Care home manager

‘Instead of sitting in their rooms… keep people thinking the whole time and keep the brain alert instead of being a dodo.’ - Resident

One of the most surprising elements of the evaluation was strong perceived benefits for staff themselves. The overwhelming majority felt that the project had a positive impact on their satisfaction with their job (68%), retention (61%), stress levels (71%) and feelings of job security (54%). There was little evidence of staff fearing volunteers will substitute for paid roles partly because these fears were well managed by managers and partly because, unlike some other settings, the roles of volunteers were clearly distinct from paid staff roles.

Involving volunteers was frequently described as a win-win but it was not without costs and volunteers tended to have a much better experience and, therefore, contributed a greater impact in those homes that invested sufficient staff time, energy and thinking. In homes where there was little management commitment to the project, where volunteers didn’t have a clear role and where staff had little time for (or training in) volunteer management, the involvement of volunteers struggled to get off the ground.

‘I think there is a lot of potential for it and we are only scratching the surface at the moment’ - Home manager

The Volunteering in Care Homes Toolkit brings together the practical learning from the project and contains guidance, references to other helpful resources and organisations, and templates on how to set up a volunteering programme in a care home. The research also highlights the need for funders and regulators to recognise the value of volunteers and take their involvement seriously in their decisions and ratings. It is only through these structural drivers that the huge potential of volunteer involvement and their contribution to resident wellbeing will be realised in care homes across the country.

See all of the project resources on the NCVO website.

Matthew Hill is Senior Research Officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research. He has carried out research into the role of volunteers across Health and Social Care including in care homes, hospices and dementia services.

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