Hospices must be creative and adaptable as they rebuild volunteer programs that were suspended or reduced during the peak of the pandemic.
Hospices rely on volunteers to organize educational programs, perform back-office work, raise funds, and help patients stave off loneliness and social isolation. But the need for social distancing and limited access to patient housing and facilities have dampened hospices’ ability to retain and recruit volunteers.
The New Hampshire-based North Country Home Health & Hospice Agency (NCHHHA) was among providers whose roster of volunteers dwindled despite running a robust program before COVID-19, according to Alyssa Lennon, director of the company’s hospice operations.
“We’ve had a drop in volunteers willing to visit patients during the pandemic to almost one [person] who was willing to visit homes,” Lennon told Hospice News in an email. “However, our spiritual advisors still visited the homes.”
Although the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has temporarily waived the requirement for volunteers to spend at least 5% of the hours caring for hospice patients, providers are preparing for their eventual reinstatement.
A key factor, of course, was the very legitimate fear of contracting COVID, given that many hospice volunteers are senior citizens themselves and are therefore a vulnerable demographic. Researchers concluded that providers need to take a more considered approach to ensuring safe work practices when reassigning volunteers.
Currently, NCHHHA has an estimated five active volunteers at home, according to local news report. The company is working to replenish its volunteer base with a revamped training program, the first since 2019. So far, 10 potential volunteers are participating.
“We were fortunate to have a strong turnout. We’re excited to expand our volunteer program again,” said Lennon. “Our goal is to be even stronger than we were before the pandemic. We would love to build a robust program, it has such a positive impact on the quality of life of our patients and allows caregivers to take care of themselves too!”
According to Lennon, volunteers play a key role in providing patient care and supporting families to reduce caregiver burnout. But they can support the bottom line of a hospice almost as much as patients.
According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the nation’s 420,000 trained hospice volunteers put in more than 19 million hours annually as of April 2019, generating more than $469 million in annual savings on staff hours and utility providers.
Volunteer hospices also provide another touchpoint for patient involvement. This can give clinical teams insight into a patient’s needs and situation, according to Sheila O’Leary, volunteer program coordinator at Northern Illinois Hospice.
After in-person volunteer activities ceased, Northern Illinois Hospice volunteers were able to return to visit patients and families in March 2021. to O’Leary.
“Some of our programs have had bigger losses than others,” O’Leary told Hospice News. “It’s been tough and kind of a dance or a great balancing act to continue to support our clinical teams, patients and families while keeping everyone safe. We evaluate and rebuild while putting everything back together. It’s about seeing where the biggest gaps are and what’s most needed right now.”
Though their roles may have changed during the pandemic, some hospices have adjusted the way they involve volunteers in patient care.
Several have kept volunteers in touch with patients virtually, or encouraged them to send letters, cards or care packages.
Some hospices have also taken advantage of the proliferating video communication platforms to develop online training program modules. This helped them keep the volunteers engaged until face-to-face activities could resume.
As with their telehealth programs, some providers expect to continue these efforts post-pandemic.
“The larger pattern is that we’ve reconsidered the role of volunteers and how volunteers can continue to support the organization, patients and families without making visits,” O’Leary said. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for us that weren’t part of our repertoire before. We can offer more options for online or remote opportunities and keep volunteers updated and engaged. That was an invitation for us to be creative.”
According to Sandy Cody, volunteer services supervisor at Chapters Health System, staying nimble can make a significant difference in building a volunteer base.
Under normal circumstances, Chapters have about 230 to 250 hospice volunteers, but they’ve seen volume drop during the pandemic, Cody told Hospice News.
Despite this, Chapters has recruited more than around 70 volunteers over the past two years.
“We had to get creative, but it’s a rebuilding process,” said Cody. “The pandemic has taught us to rely on each other a little more than before and taught us to be resilient. We can get through things and continue to serve our patients – we just have to look for other ways to do it. Change is difficult, but some things we will continue because we still have volunteers who cannot or do not want to come.”
Vaccination was one of the issues to be managed with volunteers. Although many of Chapters’ volunteers are vaccinated, some were unable or requested an exemption, according to Cody. In response, the company introduced more activities they could do remotely, as well as up-front talks about immunizations during the volunteer onboarding process.
Local chapters will continue to mix virtual and in-person volunteer support over the long term.
“We found some positives in that,” said Cody. “We will continue to come up with projects that they can do at home. Our goal is to get back to where our volunteers were before the pandemic and continue to grow our programs. We see some volunteers who had withdrawn and that’s a great thing.”