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The essential role of volunteers when social distancing is the norm.

Challenge for the traditional volunteer role

Volunteers are well known to provide the additional human face of palliative care services. Their role is to offer social activities that provide extra comfort and support when a person is dying in their own home. Activities like developing the person’s biography, assisting with shopping, simple massage, sitting with them while their carer has time off, are routine in any palliative care service.

However, with the pandemic COVID-19, clinical visits are much restricted, with consultations being undertaken by phone or Skype. This also applies to volunteer support and thus provides a challenge to their role.

How one palliative care service responded

Shaping Melbourne City Mission’s response, the Coordinators of Volunteers have spoken to all clients and their carers who have had a volunteer visiting, to advise them of this change.  Most clients have been very understanding, with many restricting the number of visitors to their home anyway. Generally, clients and their carers wish to continue their contact from their volunteer by phone, and volunteers are very happy to provide this connection.

New clients are offered a volunteer to maintain social connection via a regular phone call.  This may be of particular importance when they are living on their own.  For clients living with a carer, it may be the carer who will take up the offer of a volunteer.  One volunteer noted the difference in the nature of the relationship with a carer after a long telephone call.  The carer had chosen a time when the client was asleep, and was able to talk more openly.  The volunteer felt that the anonymity of the phone allowed the carer to open up in a way they may not have done in person.

Creating a sense of social connection

In the bereavement program, bereaved carers have lost their social connection provided by the groups run by the bereavement team.  Volunteers have expressed willingness to provide phone connection for carers who may find that they are having to cope with the loss of family visits at the same time as they are dealing with the loss of their loved one.

As isolation becomes the norm, there is a different volunteer role to be offered to clients and their carers – that of a regular social connection via telephone.  It is important to remember that volunteers are experiencing the same sense of dislocation and they are keen to still be able to contribute to the overall team’s work.

This article was written by Pam Harris, Coordinator of Volunteers and Margaret O’Connor, Research Consultant, Melbourne City Mission Palliative Care

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