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Volunteers in dementia and acute hospitals

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approaches to dementia care, care services and care homes, carers, education and training

I popped down to our ward this week to see how the new carer’s passport is going. We are working with John's Campaign (http://www.johnscampaign.org.uk/to champion open visiting for patients with dementia and in the process of piloting it on our ward. It appears to be going well and we have a promise from three more wards who have volunteered to do a second phase pilot for the scheme.

While there I was very happy to bump into one of our longstanding volunteers. She was, as always, sat busily chatting with one of the patients and they were engrossed together in some colouring books and puzzles. I reflected how wonderfully fortunate we are to have such a fantastic team of committed and altruistic volunteers. They generously give their time to help patients with dementia to feel at home and settled in an unfamiliar, sterile and clinical environment without their loved ones.

They have to go through a period of training before they can launch into volunteering. The hospital volunteer co-ordinators provide a comprehensive programme which includes safeguarding, health and safety, fire safety, manual handling, values and behaviours, mealtime assistance, information governance, infection prevention, bullying and harassment, as well as a police check.

Take the mealtime assistance role as an example; they help patients with cutting up food, filling up drinks, washing their hands, making a warm drink, ensuring they have serviettes, condiments, an extra ice cream perhaps. They may even just sit with them to offer a gentle reminder to eat when dementia has clouded their ability to simply remember that it is lunchtime.

The volunteers are fully supported to undertake further training with the speech and language department if they want to feed patients, and this results in a competency assessment.

These activities may seem simple to an outsider looking in, but to the people in the frame, such activity is vital, and possibly the highlight of their day. They have the warm friendly engagement of a concerned human being who cares enough to make sure that they experience a sense of normality in the frightening world they have suddenly found themselves in. A place where strangers do the most unexpected and inexplicable things to them.

Our volunteers are part of the team. I am often astonished by their deep sense of altruism and kindness. In a busy world where we are all running to stand still to deliver care, our volunteers make the difference between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’.

Of course, some patients don’t want to sit with a volunteer, they just want their family and to go home. Quite right too and we pull out all the stops to make sure this happens. But in the meantime, we have our lovely volunteers to smooth the way and make their stay as pleasant as possible.

I am so drawn in by the whole phenomena of volunteering that I have decided to focus the next three years of my career into researching this for a PhD. As part of my MSc degree, I have developed a manual to embed the work I have already done and in the process of rolling this out the rest of the Trust. I have also developed an educational resource to help volunteers with their communication skills in dementia care and have written about the work I did with volunteers in the Nursing Times (http://www.nursingtimes.net/roles/older-people-nursing/the-value-of-volunteers-on-older-peoples-acute-wards/5075876.article).

This seems to be an under researched area, and what first appeared to me to be common sense, has evolved into a fascinating and absorbing piece of work which I hope will in time benefit other areas.

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