Volunteering in care homes: tackling loneliness and much more

Loneliness is one of the scourges of our time, and never more desperate than at this time of year. It is estimated that 51% of all people over 75 in England are living alone and that for 5 million older people the television is their main form of company. Recent research has suggested that loneliness not only causes anxiety and depression but suppresses the immune system and significantly reduces life expectancy.

Whilst the problem is most acute for individuals living at home, loneliness can also affect residents in the 15,000 or so care homes which operate in England. Many have no family or friends to visit and little connection to their local community. For these people the sense of isolation can be equally as pronounced as for those living alone.

It was with this concern in mind that Volunteering England developed the Volunteering in Care Homes project, a three-year national pilot funded by the Department of Health and guided by a Strategic Advisory Group made up of stakeholders in the care home sector. The project, which was taken on by NCVO following its merger with Volunteering England in January 2013, is approaching its end and some hugely positive findings are beginning to emerge.

The project has brokered relationships between local infrastructure organisations and care homes to recruit, train and manage volunteers to support residents through befriending or activity-focussed relationships.

Impacts of the project

The interim evaluation report  has highlighted that where the project has been working well it has been having ‘significant positive impacts on residents, relatives and volunteers especially around social and emotional wellbeing’.

For residents, the opportunity to have someone visit and give them individual attention is viewed as a necessity, one resident said: ‘If I didn’t have the volunteer my morale would be very low’. This sentiment is supported by care home staff who have observed how the time spent by volunteers with residents helps to reduce distress and anxiety amongst residents, particularly amongst those with dementia. One senior carer stated: ‘It does reduce distress because they like to re-live their lives. It settles them, it’s like a de-stress’.

For care home staff, having the support of volunteers in their homes is welcomed for the benefits it brings to residents and relatives. One activities co-ordinator stated: ‘It is just brilliant… it has improved their [residents’] lives so much’; while relatives are reassured by the presence of others: ‘someone else coming in to brighten up the day of their relative’.

It is not only the residents and relatives who have benefitted from volunteers coming into care homes. Care home staff have commented that volunteers make a distinctive contribution that can add value to the organisation. One such added value has been to promote inter-generational and cultural understanding and tolerance, as noted by one care home owner:

It brings the community into the care home; everyone has embraced meeting volunteers from different cultures and learning about them, for example, the Festival of Ede. It challenges assumptions about age and cultures and has broken down cultural barriers.

Reciprocity in volunteering

The relationship between residents and volunteers is not one sided. The interim evaluation report has highlighted the personal benefits gained from volunteering. Developing confidence, satisfaction from helping, a sense of community, and communication skills were rated by volunteers as the most important.

For some of the younger volunteers, the volunteering opportunity has proved transformational. One 16 year old volunteer described his journey:

I was really nervous to start and had to push myself to volunteer. I really enjoyed it over the weeks as the residents liked playing games with me, especially dominoes. I feel a lot more confident now about leaving the house.

Volunteering should never be used as a replacement for paid staff. But at a time when the sector is concerned with a looming staffing shortage, where it is estimated that in the next five years nursing homes and care agencies in England will be experiencing a shortfall of about 200,000 workers, some of those who have had the opportunity to volunteer could see a new career in the sector.

The young volunteer in the case study above went on to say, ‘I have decided I want to go into care work in the future’.  This opportunity has not been lost on some care home managers who have seen the volunteers as ‘a pipeline’ of potential new recruits. Those who are seen to be ‘good at this’ have been encouraged where appropriate to move from volunteering to a paid position.

Next steps

The pilot has been a great success but the challenge in the current economic climate is for care homes to find the resources to invest in the infrastructure to facilitate the development of sustainable volunteer programmes.

With our rapidly ageing population it is a challenge which has to be grasped.

For more information about the Volunteering in Care Homes project and available resources, go to the Care Homes web page

If you are interested in joining the discussion on new developments in volunteering please come to our workshop on social action at our Annual Conference on 18 April 2016.


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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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