Half of the volunteers in aged care have stopped volunteering since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and advocacy organisations are doing what they can to regain this informal workforce.
The Aged Care Workforce Census of 2020 showed the number of volunteers had dropped from 23,537 residential aged care volunteers in 2016 to only 11,980 volunteers providing support at aged care homes at the end of 2020.
Volunteers are considered an important part of aged care and can do a lot to support paid staff in everyday care, so the Government and volunteering bodies are working to encourage volunteers to return.
This article explains why returning volunteers to aged care is a focus of the Government, what is being done to attract volunteers and how volunteers should work alongside paid aged care staff.
According to Volunteering Australia Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mark Pearce, volunteers support the wellbeing of older people in their homes and in residential settings.
In 2016, volunteers were engaged in 83% of residential aged care facilities and 51% of home care services, having a huge impact on the social support provided to older people.
“They value special time spent with visitors, such as family, friends or other members of the community,” Mr Pearce explained.
“Volunteers contribute in a distinct way that cannot always be replicated by paid staff, contributing through activities such as planned group activity assistance, companionship, and befriending.”
A spokesperson of the Department of Health and Aged Care added that volunteers also “build social and community cohesion and prevent social isolation and loneliness” and that is why the Government sees re-engaging volunteers as an important issue.
“Volunteers bring the power of human connection and social interaction to older people in residential aged care homes, which has been particularly important throughout the pandemic and as we transition to living with COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
In June, the Federal Government began the Re-engaging Volunteers into Residential Aged Care Facilities Program, to encourage former volunteers to return and invite new volunteers to become involved in aged care.
The program involved volunteers providing non-clinical social and emotional support to aged care residents specifically.
Volunteers can also become involved in caring for older Australians through the Community Visitor Scheme, and LGBTIQ+ Health Australia and Dementia Australia initiatives.
The Department of Health and Aged Care spokesperson said clear public health policies and communication around access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as well as COVID vaccination requirements, have allowed volunteers to safely return.
“Over time, advice and public health restrictions have been revised to ensure that restrictions are proportionate to the local COVID-19 risk environment,” they said.
The essential visitor guidelines released in February this year was also designed to ensure aged care residents had access to emotional and social support, even during a COVID outbreak, the Department spokesperson said.
These efforts to re-engage volunteer visitors to residential facilities will receive a further boost from July 1, 2023, with an additional $39.63 million in funding to 2026.
Mr Pearce said while the 2020 Aged Care Workforce Census showed volunteers were “disproportionately affected” by the pandemic and it would be a “significant challenge” to get volunteers back into aged care, Volunteering Australia is also continuing to advocate on behalf of volunteers to get the support they need.
While volunteers have an important place in care for an older person, they cannot replace paid staff – both are needed for high quality care.
Mr Pearce said volunteers should “complement” the paid workforce and be “considered strategically in workforce planning” so they are not undertaking tasks that are more appropriate for paid staff.
The Department of Health and Aged Care says volunteers may offer support through:
During the times of heavier pandemic restrictions, volunteers that remained involved in aged care also made phone calls, sent letters or drawings and provided messages of support for aged care residents.
For more information about volunteers and aged care, visit the Volunteering Australia website.