Creating ‘Super’ Volunteers: Expanding the role of volunteers in long-term care communities

By Paul P. Falkowski, Ph.D.

I think it’s common knowledge by now that we are facing serious challenges for providing an adequate and well-trained workforce in the long-term care community.  With more than a million job vacancies projected by the year 2020, (just three years from now), we need to make sure that we are exploring, evaluating and exploiting every possible resource available to us to meet that challenge.  From personal experience, with supporting research and discovering existing exemplary programs, I know that one of the resources that is rich with talent, possesses a willingness to learn new skills and a harbors a passion for serving is people living in our towns and cities, many of whom are our neighbors and friends who, having enjoyed some success in their careers, are now entering a time in their lives when they are looking for opportunities outside of their workplace where they can make a difference that they can see first-hand while offering them an opportunity for personal growth.
I started recruiting and training volunteers in 1999 and in 2010, I revamped our training using input from focus groups made up of long-term care delegators and direct-care workers. What resulted was a volunteer program that prepares someone to become what I am now calling a “super” volunteer.  I admit the term “super” may be arguable but the people I am now training are just that – they are super!  They’ve endured a stringent vetting process that includes background checks, letters of reference, face-to-face interviews and finally accepting an invitation to complete a two-day, sixteen-hour intensive workshop that they pay for.
When I initiated this new protocol, I wasn’t sure if anyone would have the will to undergo such a process.  To my amazement, as people came for the initial interview, I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. The very first person to complete the new program was an Air Force pilot.  She was stationed in Omaha at the time and was looking for a volunteer opportunity.  I was a bit nervous as I went about explaining the regimen that I was about to put her through.  She didn’t even blink and one month later completed the program.  Since then, I have trained more than 100 people. I would describe them as mid-to-late career professionals now looking for a way to make a positive impact in their community.  They all, for the most part, have that same level of passion and commitment.  Now, I get calls weekly from nursing homes in my area asking, “Do you have some of your volunteers for us?”  and “Where do you find these people?” I’ve learned through this experience that when you set the bar for excellence, you will find people who can jump that high. 
There are issues associated with expanding the volunteer’s role in the long-term care setting.  I’ve identified five major areas to be addressed: volunteer stigma, liability, unions, policy and regulations, and, last but not least, budget.  I am pleased to let you know that there are long-term care providers both here in the United States and abroad that have discovered how to address those issues and have implemented exemplary volunteer programs.  The goal is not to replace professional staff with volunteers but to provide volunteers that can free up the professional caregiver for more complex tasks.  I know of a provider that oversees a 240-bed community.  Because she realized he value of “super” volunteers, she now has over 800 volunteers that are onsite 24 hours a day and seven days a week.  Another exemplar is a volunteer program that includes volunteers developing and implementing programs based on research conducted by volunteer researchers!  While this example may be a bit extreme it goes to my point that great volunteer programs are happening and they are having a positive impact on quality of care, quality of life, turnover, and yes the budget.  
My mission now in life is to let you know that this can happen for you as well.  Again, are the volunteers replacing staff? No, and that is definitely not the goal!  However, these “super” volunteers because of their commitment and training become a wonderful supplement to your staff.  At one community, initially, and rightfully so, the staff were hesitant, asking their administrator, “Are you trying to replace us?” Eighteen months into the program those same staff are now saying, “We couldn’t do what we are doing without them!”
To learn more about this work and how you can create “super” volunteers for your community please attend “Creating the ‘Super’ Volunteer: Expanding the Role of Volunteers,” at the American Society on Aging 2017 Aging in America Conference in Chicago, Monday, March 20, 2017, at 2:30 P.M.  I look forward to meeting you!
Dr. Paul Falkowski is a global thought leader in volunteerism and founder of COMMUNITY 360° a non-profit that recruits, screens and trains “super” volunteers for long-term care communities. In addition, he teaches online gerontology courses and is currently writing a book “The VolunCheerFactor.” Paul is passionate about consulting with administrators, directors of volunteers, volunteer coordinators and individuals to understand the key role “super” volunteers can play in providing person-centered care and helping professional staff provide quality of life through culture-based, interactive workshops, seminars and keynotes.