By Sophie Okolo

Have you ever done a Google search of volunteers and senior living? It’s rather fascinating!

Many communities dedicate web pages to their volunteer opportunities, and there are even articles explaining the benefits of volunteering. So why are communities not bursting with volunteer activities? Why did residents suffer terribly from isolation and loneliness during the pandemic? What are we missing?

We should spend time creating glossy websites for our communities, yes, but we also need to put our heads together and figure out more proactive ways to get more volunteers.

We need them to make our communities more vibrant and more active, and we need to see firsthand the benefits to senior living — and volunteers as well. After all, they are able to:

  • Interact with older adults, learn from them, get advice, and listen to stories.
  • Learn skills. They could work with the activity director to create an activity program, for example.
  • Learn people skills and how to engage with staff.

 So instead of talking the talk, let’s start walking the walk!

How and Where to Recruit

It’s easy to visit a web page to learn about the process of becoming a volunteer. But how about people who don’t visit the website or know where to turn? Getting more volunteers is ultimately the responsibility of any community. Here are some ways to do just that!

  • Clergy: Ask members of clergy if they’d like to have regular one-on-one phone visits with residents. They can also allow communities to broadcast their live religious services.
  • Universities: Start an internship. Students look for places to work or volunteer to get college credit. My university didn’t have any connections to senior living communities, so gerontology students had to find a community on their own. I only found mine because I searched online. But imagine if communities already had partnerships with colleges. It would definitely make things easier for everyone involved.  
  • City newsletters: Advertise in newspapers, community newsletters, and magazines.

Does your senior living community need help with event planning, fundraising, activity programs, or administration? It helps to be specific with your requests! For instance, you can invite volunteers to serve as a “welcome ambassador” or member of a resident council. If you don’t have those already set up, what are you waiting for? Start today!

Consider Virtual or Remote Volunteering

As we saw, the pandemic was terrible, and it took a toll on communities. Hopefully, we never have to experience that again. But if we do, we have to make sure we’re better prepared!

Good outreach is important, but it also needs to be thorough. There are nonprofits that provide virtual or remote volunteering for senior living. You can partner with such organizations in case it’s hard getting volunteers to come in. For example, phone volunteering can involve reading to a resident, or just talking to them. Even showing a live art workshop or sporting event or doing a virtual book club can help residents feel more connected with each other.

Your community may have residents who get few to no visits. They have no family in the area or none at all. Finding creative ways to also engage them is much-needed.

Ultimately, doing outreach is not just to get people to volunteer who already have a passion for older adults, it’s also to inspire people who may not have thought about volunteering, helping them understand the benefits. There are people who still haven’t had the opportunity of being with an older adult. We know we all can learn from each other, and this is why intergenerational friendships are wonderful.

It’s All About Companion Care

Not every community is the same, but I’ve worked in enough of them to know that residents are lacking companionship. I call myself a “serial volunteer” because I love assisting activity coordinators with creating new activities or just mixing things up. But there’s nothing more fulfilling than spending time with older adults, hearing their stories, and sometimes helping them with simple tasks.

Companionship is really needed in memory care communities, and that’s where I like to spend most of my time. I was often the only volunteer, and some activity coordinators were surprised when I signed up to assist.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. But this is what happens when we talk about volunteering, but don’t do much about it. Now, this needs to change.