People Power Key To Care Crisis

New research provides compelling evidence that the quality of life and isolation of older people receiving care is dramatically improved when citizen volunteers are ‘prescribed’. The full, research launched on Tuesday 4 July 2006, was commissioned by CSV, Help the Aged and the British Red Cross. It finds that 83% of older people receiving volunteer support report improvements in their quality of life. Face-to-face interviews conducted as part of the research also reveals that some older people prefer support from volunteers, reflecting their poor experience of care in the past.

The research shows that by spending time and taking an interest in those they support volunteers improve the dignity of older people, combat isolation and help them lead independent lives. The research comes in the wake of a series of recent reports highlighting the failure of existing services to fully consider the needs of older people, the need to provide adequate personal care, the rising numbers of isolated older housebound people and the need to support people to live independent lives.

The study, called Making a Difference through Volunteering, was conducted by a team of researchers from the Older People’s Programme.  It canvases the views of more than 160 care service users in addition to 160 volunteers and 6 projects providing volunteer services commissioned by NHS organisations and Local Authorities, as part of the wider formal support. The study has been funded by the Lloyds TSB Foundation for England and Wales.

Volunteers provide important support for many older people, carrying out a wide range of tasks including those that are not currently carried out by anyone else – and especially not by statutory agencies. These include: accompanying people to doctor appointments and helping with housework and shopping.

The research finds the social role of volunteers is an essential element in breaking isolation and improving independence and well being among older people. Unlike most paid staff, volunteers have flexibility with their time to talk and listen with older people. Over two-thirds of the volunteers in the survey believe that their most important role is providing a listening ear.

The research also demonstrates how volunteers can help reach people who have refused help from statutory services and how volunteers are viewed more as a friend than as a carer.

Helen Bowers, Director of the Older People’s Programme and lead author of the report, says:
“The research demonstrated that volunteers play a vital, and often under-estimated, role in boosting the self esteem and confidence of the people they support. They provide a wide range of practical and emotional support that in many cases is not being offered by anyone else – family members nor local services. The fact that volunteers care and choose to be there was incredibly important to service users involved in this work – and had clearly made a difference to their sense of independence and overall wellbeing.”

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, Executive Director of CSV: “CSV was struck by comments that some older people prefer support form volunteers reflecting their poor experience of care in the past. We challenge all care providers to raise their game and understand that services provided by volunteers, far from being second best, are our best hope for a better quality of life for all citizens. It is only when professionals truly partner citizens that far more and far better services will reach those who need them. “

Michael Lake CBE, Director General, Help the Aged, says “The value that volunteers give to the quality of life of older people remains largely unrecognised and it is high time we saw a sea change in this. More older people want to stay independent and in their own homes for as long as possible and that a ‘little extra help’ with day to day activities, such as shopping, housework, getting to a GP surgery, can be a real life-saver. Without such support, many older people would struggle to stay independent, become socially isolated, not to mention having their dignity severely compromised.”

Sir Nicholas Young, Chief Executive, British Red Cross: “This research shows how volunteers gain from the experience and help build local communities by promoting active citizenship and breaking down social isolation.”

Andrew Cozens CBE, former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services is assisting with the launch of the research. Andrew Cozens says: “Volunteers offer sensitive, person centred support which complements professional care. However, they are neither a ‘free’ nor a cheap alternative and are providing much needed support and engagement lacking elsewhere in the system. There needs to be smarter commissioning of volunteer services to ensure that schemes are financially viable and sustainable.”

The research finds that the volunteers were just as likely to benefit as those they help, with 90% reporting personal satisfaction through volunteering, 70% saying it had helped them to keep active. Over half reported an increased sense of self-worth. The motivations behind volunteering were predominately helping others (65%) and meeting new people (34%).

To improve care for older people the research calls for greater recognition of the success of volunteers and to incorporate co-working with volunteers more widely throughout the UK. The research also suggests that better monitoring of the outcomes and impact of volunteers working with care services would result in smarter commissioning and funding of future volunteers programmes.