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Personal Care Volunteer

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For one day, the female patients at a nursing home are made to feel like royalty.

A hospice in Florida offers a unique Queen for a Day program. A group of teenage girls volunteers their time to visit with patients who are near the ends of their lives. Equipped with nail polish, make-up and hair brushes, the teens paint the women's fingernails, apply make-up and style hair.

"It's fun for the teenage girls to do, and the female patients just love that attention," says Kathy Roble. Roble is the director of volunteer services at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. The hospice provides care to people who are dying.

"It's an invaluable program from the teens' perspective. They learn leadership skills, they learn about life, they learn about death," says Roble. "But it's also wonderful for our patients who love those bright faces."

Besides polishing nails and styling hair, personal care volunteering can include feeding, bathing and dressing people who are elderly, sick or disabled. It can also include haircuts and foot care for the homeless.

In many cases, people who provide personal care in hospitals or long-term care facilities are paid for their work. But some professional service providers, like hair stylists and massage therapists, donate their time and services to people in need. At hospices, personal care can be part of a broader volunteer role. Federal guidelines require hospices to use trained volunteers.

"The whole hospice sector relies heavily on volunteers," says Sally Blainey. Blainey is the manager of volunteer services at a hospice. "They really are our front line.... It's an entire workforce that is out there that this whole industry couldn't survive without."

At the hospice where Blainey works, "care team" volunteers visit clients in their homes. Many have life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart disease or HIV/AIDS.

Typically, volunteers commit four hours per week. They provide emotional support and a listening ear to clients. They also give caregivers a much-needed break. And as relationships develop between volunteers and clients, volunteers may find themselves providing personal care.

For example, they may help clients move from their beds to their wheelchairs. They may also help clients go to the bathroom.

"There are people who have been caregivers their whole lives, probably. And they have no problem doing any of that anyway." says Roble. "For others, they never want to do it, and it's not a requirement."

The population in North America is aging. Roble expects it will be challenging to find enough volunteers to help care for the sick and elderly. She sees her community in Florida as an example of what's to come, because there are a lot of retired people living there. During the past 15 years, her volunteer program has grown from about 400 volunteers to 3,000.

For seven hours straight, Mark Holt cut and styled hair. Fourteen clients later, he hadn't made a dime. But he couldn't have felt better about it.

A barber for seven years, Holt decided to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect. Project Homeless Connect is a national program with events in communities across the country. The one-day event provides homeless people with showers, dental care, clothing, social services -- and haircuts.

"I just thought it was something nice to do," says Holt. "I believe in helping others... I feel like I get better blessings by helping others." After a short time in his barber's chair, Holt could see the difference he had made.

"I know they walked out of there like new money," he says. "They walked out of there smiling cheek to cheek.

"I made sure I cut them right, just like if I was in my shop," he adds. "Whether you're homeless, or you've got a million dollar home, I'm going to give you the same haircut."

You could say that Maureen Patrick takes a very "hands-on" approach to volunteering.

Patrick is a massage therapist. She volunteers with the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. For seven years, she has been visiting clients in their homes. Many are bedridden or in pain as a result of their illnesses. So Patrick helps to relieve their pain with massage therapy.

"It's not for everyone. It can be tough," says Patrick. "I try to comfort them as much as possible... I don't do it for money. A lot of times just seeing somebody smile, or be rid of some pain, is enough for me."

Patrick recalls one client with cancer. When she asked him what she could do for him, he told her his whole body hurt. But after his massage therapy, she noticed a change in him.

"It was just inspiring to me," says Patrick. "There was just something about his eyes and his face that was glowing."

When Norma Crooks starts a volunteer shift at the hospice, she never knows exactly what she'll be doing. Some days, she helps the nurse and personal care assistant change or turn over patients. Other days, she makes beds, gives relaxing foot rubs, or reads to patients. She also feeds patients.

"It takes a long time to feed someone who's very, very low or very ill," says Crooks. She has a nursing background herself. "You can't hurry anything." At the hospice, it's all about making patients as comfortable as possible.

She says the volunteers save the nursing staff time. And in the end, patients benefit from extra care they wouldn't receive otherwise.

Crooks reads a letter from a patient who stayed at the hospice. She says it explains why she volunteers. The letter says:

"We want to thank you for being such amazing caregivers and such amazing people. Thank you for asking what we wanted to eat and for bringing it. Thank you for always coming when we rang our bell... Thank you for putting our teeth in, taking our teeth out, and putting our teeth back in again, and for keeping our lips moist and our eyes moist with drops... .

"Thank you for doing all this with so much love in your hearts... and allowing yourselves to get close enough that we were friends at this special time at this special place in our lives."

How to Get Involved

Most personal care volunteers must be 18 years old. However, some organizations offer volunteer programs for youth. Contact your local hospice or nursing home to find out what you can do.

Volunteers are usually required to attend training offered by the organization, and undergo screening. Screening may include an interview, a police check and reference checks.


The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
Learn more about the national organization

Volunteer Match
Find volunteer opportunities near you

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