Elizabeth Newman

Two teenagers go to a nursing home as part of the mandatory volunteer requirement for graduating from high school. One plays cards with a resident; the other takes charge of a disastrous jigsaw puzzle situation. When the former signs out, the nurse asks what kind of work she wants to do. The high school student says she “never really thought about it.” 

The nurse responds by rolling her eyes and says, “I told them to stop sending kids like you. We only want volunteers who care about this kind of work.” She tells the student to tell her guidance counselor to send her to Girl Scouts the next month.

The above is from a small scene in a book I read recently called “The Impossible Knife of Memory” by Laurie Halse Anderson, which follows a teenager and her veteran father as he tries to manage his post-traumatic stress disorder. While the book is fiction, the scene is realistic, and it gives us a jumping off point to discuss whom we want volunteering in our nursing homes.

While it’s hard to have firm data on visitors to nursing home residents, it’s estimated that at least half never have a visitor. This can be for a variety of reasons: A relocation away from a community, estrangement or busy families, or outliving most friends and relatives. Groups such as Florida-based Friends Across the Ages specifically exist to connect volunteers to visiting nursing home residents, while Volunteer Match makes it easy for potential volunteers to scout out where needs are in their areas, including working with seniors.

Which is wonderful, but long-term care administrators know having volunteers come “help” is easier than it sounds. Realistically, there needs to be a volunteer coordinator, or someone who can oversee the program. Many nursing homes have a policy that volunteers must be screened, undergo a basic orientation and — ideally — be up-to-date on vaccinations. The benefit of a volunteer playing cards is diminished if he or she gets your residents sick.

Still, with many high schools requiring community service hours, it’s misguided to ignore the potential of high school students. And if we zero in only on students who say they have an interest in healthcare or the elderly, we’re doing a disservice to the industry, not to mention the next generation.

Let’s assume half of high school students know — or say they know — what they want to major in or focus on after graduation, and the other half have no idea. The latter group has a ton of potential because what they need is a positive experience or mentor to show them the benefits of working in long-term care. With the more direction-focused former half, a good chunk of those students will say they want to be lawyers, or teachers, or whatever their parents told them was a good idea. They may very well have no idea of the possible career paths in long-term care, from data analysis to speech language pathology. To push either group away is unwise.

The goal of having volunteers should be to improve the resident experience, which students can provide in a myriad of ways. The gold standard is a program such as this one at Windsor Park, where students help residents use computers and the Internet. It’s a win-win for everyone involved — whether or not it’s immediately apparent at the time just how much of a “win” it is for any of those giving or receiving help.

Elizabeth Newman is the Senior Editor at McKnight’s. Follow her @TigerELN.