Usually the reading of the week will be an inspirational or thought-provoking story or poem related to nursing home volunteerism. For this week, however, the required reading is simply orientation information to be read before your first visit. This is by far the longest of all the readings. It is geared towards volunteers who are entering our “one-to-one visitation program.”
FRIENDS ACROSS THE AGES
VOLUNTEER ORIENTATION INFORMATION
Welcome to the Friends Across the Ages nursing home outreach. Your willingness to share your time and friendship is greatly appreciated. Volunteers occupy a very special place at nursing homes. The physical and medical needs of the nursing home residents are the responsibility of the nursing home. Some have family members that visit periodically. But what many lack is someone—especially someone from the “outside world”— to be their friend. This caring connection is something the nursing home cannot provide without the help of volunteers. Your presence helps the residents know they are not forgotten and that they still matter. And it gives them the opportunity to share themselves with you. They have much love, wisdom, and friendship to offer others if only given the chance.
Friends Across the Ages is dedicated to forming true friendships with residents of nursing homes, especially the lonely and forgotten, to enrich their lives and ours. We strive to increase community support and recognition for the importance of authentic and respectful connections with the people we serve.
Through compassion, respect, and recognition of the needs of residents of nursing homes, Friends Across the Ages will be recognized by the community as an organization that relieves loneliness, restores dignity, and renews a connection to the outside world for residents in nursing home facilities. We will also be recognized as an enriching and life changing volunteer opportunity.
1) Profound Respect for Residents: We value the residents as individuals with gifts, talents, and feelings.
2) Profound Respect for Volunteers: Volunteers should feel appreciated, needed, supported and inspired.
3) Authentic, Mutually Beneficial Relationships for Residents and Volunteers: An authentic connection should be fostered between resident and volunteer.
4) Personal Character of Our Organization: Our primary goal is quality not quantity.
5) Professional Character of Our Organization: A commitment both to residents’ needs, and to comprehensive training and support of volunteers and mentors.
ONE-TO-ONE VISITATION GROUPS
Volunteers entering our one-to-one visitation program do so by joining one of our one-to-one visitation groups. The terminology can be confusing, because you will be doing one-to-one visits with nursing home residents, but will be part of a group of volunteers. The purpose of these groups is to give you a chance to interact with other volunteers, for community building and support of one another. Also, meeting at a set time enables the Friends Across the Ages Coordinator for your nursing home to be there for you each week, especially during the twelve-week training period. Usually the group meets at a set time and then fans out to visit individual residents. Some groups might even have a sort of event/gathering each week with some of the residents in addition to the one-to-one visits.
Of course things like illness or travel may prevent you from visiting with the group in a given week. You should let your coordinator know as much in advance as possible; you can pick up with your visits the following week. Volunteers in the twelve-week orientation period are not to visit on their own until they have completed all 12 visits–more on that below. Volunteers who have completed the twelve week training period have more flexibility; still communication with the group coordinator is important.
If you would ever like to bring a roommate, family member, or friend with you when you visit the nursing home, just ask your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator. This is usually not a problem (and can be a lot of fun for both of you), but if they start to come regularly they will need to go through the usual orientation and training process.
LENGTH OF COMMITMENT
You are committing to complete a training period of 12 weekly visits of about an hour, at the set time with the visitation group. We ask you to make this commitment out of consideration for both the nursing home residents and the Friends Across the Ages Coordinators; it is difficult on all concerned when volunteers are constantly coming and going. Also, we feel that twelve weeks is a good amount of time for you to get acquainted with the nursing home and learn the skills you will need. After twelve visits you will have the chance to apply to be an official “Friend Across the Ages” (long term volunteer). Acceptance as a long term volunteer will be up to the Friends Across the Ages Coordinator at your nursing home. As mentioned above, during the initial 12 week orientation period, you are only allowed to visit at the group time under the supervision of the Coordinator. After the 12 weeks are completed, if you are accepted as a long term volunteer we are more flexible, but still strongly encourage you to stick with your visitation group.
Resident matching is a fluid process in which the volunteer participates. In the first few weeks, you will be introduced to one or more residents of the nursing home who are in need of friendly visitation. These residents are identified by the nursing home’s Activity Director and/or the Friends Across the Ages Coordinator. You, however, are also encouraged to take the initiative and strike up a conversation if you notice a resident who looks lonely.
It may take some time to settle in with a particular resident or residents, but eventually our hope is that you will find one or two whom you will commit to visit once a week. If you are visiting two or more residents be sure to spend some time with each. The amount of time you spend with each might vary from week to week, and might depend on how much interaction the resident wants or is able to engage in.
As you meet residents at the nursing home, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is an authentic friendship. And just like in the rest of the world, friendship is something that happens naturally and cannot be forced. Therefore, if you feel for any reason that you are unable to visit a resident or residents (even if you have been visiting them for a while), it is imperative that you notify the volunteer coordinator. Please be honest if you are experiencing difficulty of any kind, or if things just do not seem to be going smoothly/comfortably for whatever reason. Resident matching is tricky, and we rely on both volunteers and residents to let us know what is working and what is not. Forcing a situation that is not working out does no one any good.
Along these same lines, be careful about what sort of commitment you make to a particular resident during the first few weeks. In other words, do not walk in the door the first day and promise to visit that person for twelve weeks! We generally do not consider a volunteer to be “matched” with a particular resident until they have had at least a few visits together, and things seem to be going well for all concerned. We recommend taking things one visit at a time for a first few weeks. If a visit has gone well, you may choose to ask at the end “is it o.k. if I come back next week?” Or if the visit has not gone well, you might simply say “it has been nice talking with you.” If you are unsure about anything, please discuss your concerns with your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator.
READINGS AND REFLECTION QUESTIONS
For volunteers in the twelve-week orientation period, cach week there is a reading on our web site and a form with reflection questions to fill out. Both are an integral part of your experience, so it is required that you visit the web site twice a week — once to read the weekly reading (before your visit to the nursing home), and once to complete the reflection questions (after your visit to the nursing home). The reading is usually a short story or poem, sometimes written by a nursing home resident or volunteer, that you may find a helpful tool in thinking more deliberately about your role as a volunteer. The reflection questions help you sum up your visit and/or reflect on the reading. There is also a place at the top of the reflection question form for you to record your date and time of visit. All of our volunteers–both those in the 12 week orientation period and our long term volunteers–also receive an email at the beginning of each month to log their number of hours and visits for the previous month.
Another support structure we provide in addition to our visitation groups and our web site material is our Mentoring Program. For the first few weeks either the Friends Across the Ages Coordinator at your nursing home or another experienced volunteer (a Mentor) will accompany you for the first few visits until you are comfortable. After that (apart from meeting with the visitation group) you will be visiting on your own, but the Mentor and/or Coordinator is always available if you need anything—usually just down the hall since you will still be visiting at the same time as everyone else. They will continue to be in close contact with you throughout the remaining weeks of your training period.
TYPES OF ACTIVITIES
Many volunteers ask “What will I do with the residents when I visit?” The most important part is just being there. Things for you to do together will follow when you find out more about them. The most popular activity is quite simple — just talking. Current events, the weather, family, favorite foods, and childhood experiences are all popular topics. Some other activities include:
- Playing cards or board games like checkers
- Bring a book, magazine, or newspaper you can read to them
- Watching sporting events or other TV shows
- Helping them write a letter to a family member
- Going outside on the porch to catch some sunshine
- Or just sitting together in silence
That last item is the toughest one to be comfortable with. Just sitting together in silence. We have been taught in our society that we always have to have the perfect thing to say. Nothing could be further from the truth at the nursing home. There are no “uncomfortable silences” there. Many of the elderly at nursing homes are, sadly, used to sitting by themselves in silence. Your mere presence makes a difference and shows them that someone cares. Your visit has been a success simply because you were there. Before reading on further, stop here and let this sink in for a minute.
THE PEOPLE YOU WILL VISIT
The people you will visit will vary greatly in their abilities. Some will be able to leave their bed, others will not. Some will be very aware of their situation; others will not know where they are. Some will remember you every time you walk in the door; others will have forgotten you by your next visit. You won’t always be thanked. It is important to not have any expectations when first getting involved. Know in your heart that you are making a difference in their lives, but they may never be able to express their gratitude.
Here are just a few hints on communication with nursing home residents in general:
- Treat all residents with the respect they deserve regardless of their physical or mental condition.
- Respect the resident’s beliefs and point of view. Do not force ideas on them, especially religious or political ideas. Take the lead from them.
- Do not talk down to residents or assume they are senile. Do speak a little slower, wait a little longer for responses, demonstrate personal interest and sympathy.
- Do not make promises to the residents that you cannot keep.
- Be relaxed. Even when staying only a few minutes, sit down and don’t appear hurried.
- When residents are confused, it is often best to validate what a resident tells you even when you know it to be incorrect (a humorous but real example: if a resident tells you it snowed yesterday, “Oh really?” would be a good response, not “You’re out of your mind! This is Florida!”).
- Try not to worry if a resident doesn’t remember you, is unintentionally rude, or isn’t a good listener (prefers to do all the talking).
- And finally, please do not take it personally if the resident decides he or she no longer wants you to visit (whether you just met them or have been visiting for a long time). The lives of people in nursing homes are challenging to say the least, and filled with things they would rather not do and intrusions upon their privacy. Sometimes, just like volunteers, they may simply discover things are not falling into place the way they had hoped, and they do not want to have a visitor any more. If this happens, just try to remember that it probably has nothing to do with you as a person, and there are many other residents who need your time and care.
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE NURSING HOME
The Friends Across the Ages program has worked very hard to establish an excellent relationship with the nursing homes we visit. We are known to the staff to be one of the most involved organizations in the area. Since we provide companionship to residents and help out with activities, we make their jobs easier, and therefore they appreciate us. Likewise, we appreciate their support and help with our program.
Unfortunately, this great relationship we have can be jeopardized very easily. Every volunteer is looked upon as a representative of Friends Across the Ages. For this reason, you should never get confrontational with a staff member for any reason. Residents will sometimes complain of injustices, or you may see what you feel to be an injustice. If this happens, you should not jump to conclusions, but instead should talk about the problem with your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator so that you can discuss together what action to take. The nursing home staff deserve our respect just as the nursing home residents do.
An example — there is an elderly lady who tells you that she has been asking for headache medicine for three days and they won’t give her any. It would be easy to immediately accuse the nurses of abuse. In actuality, it is quite possible that this lady suffers from short-term memory loss and does not remember, even when they gave her pain medicine minutes before.
Again, the appropriate response whenever you observe something which concerns you is to politely check with the nurse/staff and/or discuss the situation with your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator. We certainly do not want to overlook problems—on the contrary. But on the other hand, we must always be respectful of all concerned.
The nursing home staff are responsible for all aspects of patient care—volunteers are not. We are not trained for patient care and can do more harm than good even when our intentions may be good. Get to know the staff members when you can and ask them if you have any questions. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Do not bring food, drinks, medicine, cigarettes, or beauty products for a resident unless you check first with their nurse.
- Do not lift a resident, such as helping them out of their bed or wheelchair. Contact the aide or nurse.
- Do not take a resident out of the facility without permission from both the facility and Friends Across the Ages. (Volunteers in the twelve week orientation period are not permitted to take residents out at all.)
- Do not visit the nursing home if you have a communicable disease, infection or virus.
- In general, do not assume — ask. Remember that the nursing home employees have complete information on each resident’s condition, and will generally appreciate that you were cautious.
It is very important that you do not get involved in the medical care of the resident you’ll be visiting. We are there for friendship only. It is not appropriate for a volunteer to ask what doctors a resident is seeing, what medications he or she is taking, etc.
Sometimes residents may choose to share information with you, which of course is their prerogative. However, if a resident chooses to share medical information with you or anything else that might be considered sensitive information in any way, please respect their privacy and keep it confidential.
Also, with regard to social media, it is fine to talk in general terms about your experiences at the nursing home, but please do not use any resident names or pictures without the resident’s written permission. Please discuss this with us and we can help you find out how to obtain that permission.
As a volunteer, you are required to maintain confidentiality of any patient health information. If you have any questions, please talk to your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator and/or the Activity Director at the nursing home.
Remember that you are a representative of Friends Across the Ages, and, more importantly, that you are interacting with people who deserve our utmost respect and attention. Remember also that your Friends Across the Ages Coordinator is always there to help you should you have any questions or concerns. Our hope is that this will be a positive—and maybe even a life-changing—experience for both you and the people you will visit. Please let us know how we can support you in this endeavor. Thank you for sharing your time and your love!