Older volunteers are crucial to the NHS

NHS England’s Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities welcomes a review of community contributions in later life published today by the Centre for Ageing Better and looks at what it means for the health service:

Public services should be rooted in their local communities and that is certainly true for the NHS.

We rely on local people not only to work in our services, support patients when they are ill and help them recover afterwards, but also on local volunteers who add value and support in a multitude of ways.

The community spirit on which the NHS depends is perhaps summed up in the way local people in Salisbury, and elsewhere, turned out in force to help doctors, nurses and others into work earlier this year during one of the largest snowfalls in living memory.

Tens of thousands of people make a regular commitment to help the NHS through volunteering, where their life experience, compassion and personal skills are hugely valued by clinical teams. Yet the review of Community Contribution in Later Life, published today by the Centre for Ageing Better, shows that those with the most to gain from volunteering, in terms of their own health and wellbeing, are least likely to do it.

This is a problem because the NHS is missing out on skills we need but also because we are denying people the chance to build self-esteem, learn new skills, reduce feelings of isolation, or even to aid their recovery from illness.

When I visited Blackpool recently I met two amazing women who told me that due to ill-health and isolation their lives had felt without purpose until they got involved with a local singing club and eventually became involved with more formal volunteering, which had given them renewed confidence and a sense of wellbeing.

One of the core features of volunteering is the opportunity to help people find such a sense of meaning and purpose. The roles volunteers play in the NHS, such as holding the hand of someone dying alone, are inherently meaningful.  But giving time to help others can also be a practical route to a career, a step out of loneliness or poverty, a chance to take a new direction when your life has changed or find a renewed sense of purpose.

Yet to maximise the benefit, both to patients and their families and to volunteers themselves, we need to look beyond the traditional core of people who are already actively engaged in their local communities, and find ways to encourage a wider range of people to get and stay involved.

This must include older people experiencing loneliness as well as those who are still young, who can feel isolated too.

It must include people with long-term conditions as well as those from some ethnic minorities who are currently under-represented in our ranks. To achieve this, we will need minorities who are currently under-represented in our ranks. To achieve this we will need to recognise the skills people bring and explain the benefits of volunteering in ways that speak to all. It means we will have to think as much about the social and emotional aspects of volunteering as practical issues like expenses and flexible hours, ensuring that volunteers feel valued, part of a supportive community, whose voices are heard alongside the wider workforce.

Today’s review shows that the impact we can achieve through volunteering in the NHS will be as much about the quality of the experience as it is about the numbers of people involved. That’s why NHS England welcomes the review’s framework for age-friendly and inclusive volunteering, as both a challenge and an inspiration for the future.

Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill

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