Health Service Focus


Taking volunteers seriously

Source: National Health Executive Jan/Feb 2015

The Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing is soon to publish its report and recommendations. NHE spoke to its chair, Lynne Berry OBE, who is also a non-executive director of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Demographic changes will profoundly alter our society, with a disproportionate impact on the health and care sector. Considering the role of volunteers and voluntary organisations in providing services in care settings and within NHS organisations, what will be the impact of ageing?

The Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing is examining these issues and more, with 11 commissioners from the voluntary sector, academia, consumer organisations and charities, many with a background in the public and private sectors too. Chairing the Commission is Lynne Berry OBE, a non-executive director of Cambridge University Hospitals FT (CUH). After an early career in social work, she led organisations including the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS, formerly WRVS), the General Social Care Council, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Family Welfare Association.

Skills to share

Berry told NHE: “Many older people want to develop for 20 or 30 years after what has traditionally been seen as the time for retirement, even if they do have a range of health conditions. They want to combine paid and unpaid work, volunteering and new careers. Many older people have had a lifetime of work and can bring those skills into both paid and voluntary activity, and ideas like Teach First are now being developed into Teach Later.

“If you bring in people who’ve got experience in customer services, call centres, that sort of customer-focused work, as Anchor Housing has been doing – actually it’s been shown that they make great older care workers. We’ll need about 1.5 million new care workers in the next decade: older people could meet some of the gaps we’re going to have.

“That could be a great way of developing new careers and opportunities for older people, using their lifetime skills, enabling them to work longer and in ways that bring those people-focused skills into something they can do flexibly, maybe until they’re 60 or 65, but maybe 70 or 75.

“We’ve got an increasingly skilled older population who are going to want to use those skills in new ways, and may well – alongside flexible paid work – want to develop flexible volunteering opportunities. They may, for example, be able to think of new types of services that volunteers can deliver for people who are not really in need of formal health or social care services, but could benefit from having someone with them and alongside them at very difficult times, and in a personalised, tailored way. People want to be supported by people more like them; older people may well appreciate having older volunteers supporting them.”

The RVS is a good example, and one that Berry knows a lot about as its former chief executive. She said: “It’s got a fantastic tradition of using the skills of volunteers, particularly older women, many of whom though didn’t have a ‘public work life’, in their past. Now the sorts of volunteers they’re getting are often very skilled, having worked in a whole range of activities – including being the people who’ve run hospitals, or been in charge of customer services projects, or who have worked as social workers or the housing sector – who bring all those sorts of skills. They are demanding, rightly, that their skills continue to be used as they volunteer. RVS has been thinking very constructively, I think, about how it can develop the opportunities for older people of the future.”

Helping patients at A&E

We asked Berry about the role of volunteers at CUH, and she said she was “very conscious” of their importance. A pilot project with the RVS places volunteers in the A&E department, for example. Berry said: “People are going through quite a stressful time, waiting to be seen. The volunteers help them make sense of the experience, to take a break and walk around not get worried that they’re going to lose their place, or just go and get them a cup of tea. It’s a ‘being there’ role, a comforting role, that’s really important.

“Skilled volunteers give people information about the announcements and messages. Although they make sense to people with a clinical background, they don’t always make sense to people there in A&E, at a time when they’re feeling quite vulnerable, and it’s quite hard to take everything in. Volunteers can make it a much more informed experience for patients.”

In autumn 2014, the UnitingCare Partnership of CUH and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS FT was chosen to deliver Cambridgeshire’s older people’s healthcare contract and to integrate care in the region. Berry said there will be an “important role for the voluntary sector”, adding: “I’m really pleased that as we’re developing new ways of creating integrated health approaches, the voluntary sector is a serious partner in that.”

Getting their voice heard

Berry also talked about diversity and representation of older people in the running of voluntary organisations, and she said: “It does matter. Representing the diversity of service users in communities is vital if you’re going to plan for the sorts of services that we’ll need in the future. That means making sure you’ve got diversity in terms of gender and age, also in terms of race and ethnic background.

“Clearly Britain is a much more diverse country, and is going to become more so over the next decade. We need to make sure that all of those experiences and voices are there in the decision-making process.

“I think it would be fair to say that amongst the trustee boards of voluntary organisations, there are many who come from older generations. Indeed, one of the challenges is to spread that diversity so that there are more middle-aged people and more younger people on the boards. They are predominately white and male and we need to make sure the trustee boards are headed by people who come from different minority ethnic groups, and to get more women in those roles.”

Thinking differently

Berry is confident that the voluntary sector is “beginning to think differently about an ageing population and what it needs to do to make sure that it is relevant for the future”. The A&E crisis this winter, with departments struggling to cope under the weight of demand, is one area where volunteers can help (more on page 26).

Sir Stephen Bubb, who leads the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), is chairing a taskforce of health and care charity leaders who could have a role in taking pressure off A&E departments. Berry said: “Community-based organisations can help prevent people having to go into hospital, or enable them to get out and into safe, supported care afterwards. The voluntary sector often acts as a bridge, as an advocate, as a strong voice on behalf of and with people – but I think that’s not really yet taken as seriously as it might be.

“It would be fantastic if the voluntary sector were further up on the agenda for the NHS and local government – not just delivering services under contract but being part of the forward-thinking, developing the sorts of appropriate care that people are going to need for the future.”

NHE will report on the recommendations of the Commission – established by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) and the International Longevity Centre-UK (ILC-UK) in August 2013 – after the launch on 19 March.

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