Volunteers make a huge contribution to improving the quality of life of patients needing palliative care and end of life care. There are currently over 125,000 volunteers in UK hospices – a 2006 survey valued their work at £112 million, which would represent a 25 per cent rise in costs if hospices were to pay for these services.
In patient-facing roles, volunteer support ranges from practical help to companionship, assisting in hospice wards and in day hospice services, and even specialist areas like cutting patients’ hair and teaching art therapy. Without them, many aspects of hospice care would be massively compromised.
Writing for ehospice in 2016, Tina Swani, Chief Executive at St. Mary’s Hospice in Birmingham said: “As we receive up to 700 referrals a year, our bereavement service would not be possible without our team of over 20 specially trained volunteers. We receive some great feedback from our patients who find the support from our volunteer bereavement workers, counsellors and support workers invaluable, enabling them to cope better.”
Benefits to volunteers are equally rewarding. Making new friends, putting knowledge to good use by helping the local community, developing new skills, and using the experience to find new, more fulfilling careers are just a few of them.
Quality training and development are key for volunteers to deliver the best possible care. While volunteers give their time for free, there are costs attached to the training and supervision that ensures they are an integrated part of the hospice’s excellent care team.
The recent South London Hospice Education Collaborative initiative pulled together eight hospices to evaluate the duration and content of their individual training programmes to develop a standardised approach. The programme covered important subjects like the impacts of serious illness and loss, difficult conversations and responding to feedback. Highlighting the importance of a formalised system, the initiative identified that many volunteers had worked for a number of years without receiving updated training. When it came to evaluating the training, managers saw an increase in the confidence of their volunteers, along with feeling a greater sense of belonging to the wider hospice community.
Another important training programme is aimed at young people. Under-18s are usually not able to fill patient-facing roles because of their specific needs, however in 2015 the Princess Alice Hospice in Esher created a new volunteering programme for people from the age of 17 upwards. Schemes like this represent an opportunity for enthusiastic volunteers to enter the hospice workforce, performing simple but nonetheless important tasks like making cups of tea, and lending a friendly ear.
Not only do volunteers have a great deal to offer themselves, but The Commission into the Future of Hospice Care noted that considered use of their time could allow professional staff to be deployed where there expertise was in higher demand.
When the Commission published ‘Volunteers: vital to the future of hospice care’, it came with a recommendation that hospice services should find ways for volunteers to play a role in the clinical team, in both the hospice and community setting, so that hospices could tackle the challenges of rising demand.
Exploring and developing the role of volunteers in the hospice workforce is clearly a vital part of services adapting to meet the growing demand for palliative and end of life care.
The nine minute film will be broadcast on BBC One this Sunday, 19 February at 4.50pm and then repeated on BBC2 on Wednesday 22 February at 1pm