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How to Volunteer in a Nursing Home

Nursing home residents need mental stimulation to keep their minds healthy -- that's where volunteers come in.
Nursing home residents need mental stimulation to keep their minds healthy -- that's where volunteers come in.
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Honored war veterans. Survivors of the Great Depression. Grandmothers who know how to darn a sock and bake the perfect apple pie. These people have lived the history we learned about in school -- and these are the people you can meet while working as a nursing home volunteer.

Nursing homes don't exactly have a reputation for being fun places to visit. But this is an unfair stigma.

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The title "nursing home" correctly implies that the people who live in these homes will be provided with a nurse's care, but nurses aren't the only caregivers. Besides the obvious medical care, nursing home residents also need mental stimulation to keep their minds healthy. This stimulation comes in the form of games and activities - and this is where the fun comes in.

Nursing homes rely on volunteers to interact with their residents. They need volunteers to provide company for residents and assist in hosting dances, card games and bingo nights. Activities run by volunteers are an integral part of bringing the feeling of home to the nursing home. In fact, federal law requires any hospice receiving financial support from Medicare or Medicaid to have at least 5 percent of the care provided to residents done through volunteer workers [source: HFA].

If you have an outgoing personality and enjoy interacting with people a generation or two older than yourself, you might try volunteering in a nursing home. In this article you'll learn about the basic requirements for a nursing home volunteer (including any training), the duties of nursing home volunteers and the benefits of working with the elderly.

You might not think that volunteering at a nursing home would be all fun and games -- but it actually can be. See the next page to find out about the many duties of a nursing home volunteer.

If you enjoy good conversations, playing cards, dancing, decorating, tidying up or being a shoulder to lean on, there's a nursing home volunteer position waiting for you.

  • As a bingo volunteer, you can call out numbers and help players find called numbers on their cards.
  • You can also give manicures -- glossy pink nails are a simple way to make someone feel young and pretty again. You don't have to be a professional manicurist or trim nails. All you need to do is apply nail polish and a bit of hand lotion.
  • If you enjoy tidying up, you can make beds and help keep residents' rooms and common areas clean.

When you work as a hospice volunteer (more on this later) your level of interaction with the patient and his or her family will be much more personal. As hospice patients and their families prepare to say their final goodbyes, volunteers are available to provide emotional support.

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For many volunteering positions, it's beneficial to work with the same resident and build a relationship. But if your schedule is too full for another weekly obligation, that's OK -- there are other ways to get involved. For example, volunteers are also needed to put together mailings for residents' families.

See the next page for information on how to get started as a nursing home volunteer.

Even within the borders of a single city, the requirements for volunteering in a nursing home can vary. Each individual nursing home has its own activities program and its own set of rules. The easiest way to determine the requirements for nursing homes in your area is to find a facility where you would like to work and contact the activities director.

For positions held by high-school-age volunteers the responsibility level is low. Typically, no formal training is necessary, but a general orientation given by the nursing home staff may be required. However, the majority of positions working with hospice patients -- even as a volunteer -- require some sort of training. The amount of training is dictated by the individual nursing homes.

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In general though, here are a few guidelines you can follow when considering nursing home volunteer employment:

  • For any job in a nursing home, you need to love being around older people. The main purpose of volunteers in a nursing home is to engage the residents, and you'll do this best if you're enjoying yourself.
  • Do you know how to play bridge? Canasta? Because playing cards is a much more mental activity than a physical one, nursing homes are always looking for volunteers who are good card players.
  • Some positions, even those with low responsibility, can have age stipulations. A common age requirement for high school volunteers is 15 years or older.
  • Can you steer a wheelchair? Responsible "drivers" are often needed to transport residents to the departments within the home.

Some volunteer positions require a little more training than others do -- especially when you'd be working with hospice patients. Working with someone who doesn't have much time to live is not something you can just jump into. You need to be mentally ready. To find out how you can get the training you need to volunteer in a nursing home -- and be a hospice volunteer -- see the next page.

Not all nursing home volunteer positions require training. The amount of training depends on the type of position you'd like. If you just want to hang out and play card games with the residents, most nursing homes don't require anything more than an application, a brief interview and an informal orientation.

For more involved positions, such as working one-on-one to provide support for a resident who has a limited life span, you'll need a little more training. Nursing home residents who don't have much longer to live are often put into hospice care. This is specialized care for someone who is preparing for death. This is a difficult time for patients and their family members, and it's important that those working in hospice care are properly prepared.

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When you work in hospice care, your interaction will not just be with the patient as a caregiver. In many cases, you will also be available to the patient's family members who need spiritual or emotional support as they prepare to say goodbye to a loved one.

This situation can be emotionally draining for family members, and for someone on the outside -- like a volunteer -- it can be difficult to find the right words to say. That is why many programs require hospice volunteers to have training in emergency medical procedures, concepts of death and dying, and grief support. To find a hospice in your area, check out the Hospice Foundation of America's online hospice directory [source: Hospice Foundation of America].

Volunteering doesn't help only the residents of the nursing home - you can benefit, too. Want to know how? See the next page.

When you volunteer in a nursing home you're almost guaranteed to make a few new friends. They may not be your usual crowd, but at one time -- believe it or not -- they were your age, and they can probably teach you a thing or two about life.

Not only will you make friends, but you will also be improving the lives of the people you meet. Moving away from your home and losing much of your independence is not easy -- especially after you've been independent for so long. Being able to share knowledge with a young person can help nursing home residents regain a little bit of the independence they lost.

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Job experience is one more benefit to add to your list of reasons to volunteer. Although your position won't be paid, that doesn't mean you can't list your experiences on your résumé. And working with a well-respected organization can also give you another name to add to your list of references.

In addition to the personal benefits of volunteering, you'll also be providing an invaluable service to your community. There's no limit to the number of volunteers who can make nursing homes more fun and enjoyable for their residents. With more volunteers, homes can plan more special events and outings.

Want to know more about volunteering your time in a nursing home? See the next page for links to more information.

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Sources

American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA). (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www2.aahsa.org/

American Health Care Association (AHCA). (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.ahcancal.org/events/national_nursing_home_week/Pages/default.aspx

Christian Community Homes and Services. "Volunteer Opportunities." (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.cchhudson.org/volunteer.html

Forbes Hospice. "Volunteer." (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.wpahs.org/hospice/volunteer.html

Holland Home. "Volunteer." (Accessed 5/26/09). http://hollandhome.org/volunteer/

Hospice Foundation of America (HFA). "Be a Hospice Volunteer." (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.hospicefoundation.org/hospiceInfo/volunteer.asp

Mitchell, Deborah. "Volunteer at a Nursing Home: Create Memories to Treasure." Charity Guide. (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.charityguide.org/volunteer/fewhours/nursing-home-volunteers.htm

Saad, Lydia. "Growing Old Doesn't Necessarily Mean Growing Infirm." Gallup Poll. (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.gallup.com/poll/25606/Growing-Old-Doesnt-Necessarily-Mean-Growing-Infirm.aspx

The Senior Source. (Accessed 5/27/09). http://www.theseniorsource.org/pages/friendlyvisitor.html

Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS). "Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities." May 8, 2009. (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.dads.state.tx.us/silverlining/nursinghome.html

VistaCare. "Volunteering." (Accessed 5/26/09). http://www.vistacare.com/giving/volunteering.asp

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