Volunteers at hospices offer patients companionship

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Of the 1.5 million elderly people living in nursing homes in the United States, 95 percent said they have been neglected or have witnessed someone being neglected in the facility, according to a study conducted in 2000.

Today marks the beginning of National Hospice Month, when such issues come to the fore of discussions in the eldercare community’s mind. Although many of those problems can be solved by nurses or medical practitioners, volunteers are as essential as professionals to making the patient’s overall experience a positive one.

Jonell Schenk, the director of social services and volunteer coordinator at AseraCare Hospice in Lawrence, Kan., understands how volunteers benefit the patients at AseraCare.

“If we can have a patient long enough so that a volunteer-patient relationship can be formed, that’s wonderful,” Schenk said. “The patient knows that they’re loved and cared for when they take that last breath. They know that they’re not alone, they know that someone cares about them.”

Elderly people in these facilities are more likely to have age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, 12.5 percent of patients who were admitted to hospices in 2011 suffered from dementia, excluding cancer as a cause for admittance.

These diseases can cause patients to be uncommunicative, whether it is with volunteers, physicians or family members. This type of behavior makes it more difficult for nursing facilities to recruit and maintain volunteers.

“Volunteers want interaction,” Schenk said. “It’s difficult if patients aren’t communicating. We don’t want to waste the time of a volunteer.”

To avoid volunteers feeling as if their time is not helpful to the patients, Schenk and AseraCare prioritize volunteer fulfillment at their facility.

Volunteers at AseraCare engage in activities that are similar to the interests they have outside of volunteering. The tasks that volunteers participate in include interaction with the patients through conversation, playing instruments like the piano and even painting nails or styling the patients’ hair.

Tori Bonner, a graduate student at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, interns with AseraCare as part of her practicum. Bonner offers patients counseling services, among other activities. She said she notices how patients’ experiences can be affected through volunteerism.

“A lot of these patients don’t have a lot of family involvement,” Bonner said. “There aren’t a lot of visitors or people for them to talk to. Sometimes the aides don’t have enough time to sit down and visit with them.”

The main purpose of volunteerism in nursing homes is to provide patients with personal interaction. Schenk mentioned she knew of one patient at a Kansas facility who has been admitted for 22 years and never had one visitor. A volunteer can simply sit in a chair next to the patient to provide them with companionship.

“I feel like [volunteering] greatly improves the patient’s quality of life, by actually being able to sit down with them and talk about what they enjoy,” Bonner said. “Volunteers can run errands, do some housework, but it’s great for the patients to have someone to talk to.”

Schenk said a portion of AseraCare’s staff hours must be allocated to volunteers. They aim to offer at least 5 percent to volunteers, and sometimes they reach upward of 9 to 11 percent given to volunteers.

Providing positive experiences, both medically and socially, is what well-regarded nursing home facilities such as AseraCare strive to accomplish.

There is a multitude of locations and ways to volunteer with nursing home facilities in the Lawrence area.

For example, at Douglas County Senior Services, volunteers can help with food preparation and delivery, transportation and even clerical work like data entry.

To find out more about volunteering at nursing homes in the Lawrence area, visit the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center  website.

The Windsor of Lawrence is one of many nursing home facilities that offer activities for volunteers. 

Windsor Transcript


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