Why students should volunteer at long-term care homes

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University students and older adult residents in long-term care centres (LTCs) can develop a special bond. Students can learn from the stories and experiences shared by older adults, while older adults can benefit greatly from interaction with younger students. Students have the opportunity to volunteer at LTCs to play music, assist with board game evenings and even just visit a resident for a nice conversation. Social distancing due to COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on older adults at both LTCs and nursing homes. As a result, students and volunteering organizations have found innovative ways to interact with the residents. Zoom sessions, Skype calls, handwritten letters and food deliveries are just the beginning.

Before the pandemic, I was volunteering at an LTC in Waterloo. I assisted with board game night by bringing residents down to the community centre, while also explaining rules and encouraging them to get involved. I found that this experience was a nice break from the stress I felt from my academic studies, and that the LTC was greatly benefiting from me and the rest of the volunteers. Simply being there was the most important part of being a volunteer. Showing the older adults that I was there for them and that I want to talk to them and hear their stories made them smile.

 One of my most memorable moments volunteering at an LTC long-term care centre was on my first day. I recall being told to head up to call and bring a few of the residents down for games night. When I walked into the dining hall, there were many older adults sitting and watching a show on television. As soon as I walked into the room, half of the older adults looked up and smiled, a few of them even waved. The joy I saw on their faces is something I will never forget. I hope you get to experience what I experienced because it was an enlightening moment. I have loved my time volunteering with older adults, and I am sure you will feel the same connection and value that I felt.

To learn more about how older adult residents at LTCs benefit from student interaction, I spoke with Dr. Allen Power, a Schlegel Chair in Aging and Dementia Innovation at the Schlegel-UW Research Institute of Aging. He has spent time using his passion for music to create a new vision of elderhood and a better future for the ageing population. Drawing on his experiences working with older adults, Power told me that students can be very impactful volunteers at LTCs. It is a mutually beneficial opportunity. Many volunteer programs have been put on pause due to COVID-19, and without these programs, older adults are not only suffering physically, but they are also finding it difficult to mentally cope with these circumstances. As these programs are transitioning to online mediums, Power said that “technology can help to promote social independence among older adults.” This is an opportunity for them to learn and grow.

Not only can student volunteers support the mental health of older adults through conversations, but student volunteers can also potentially reduce the need for antipsychotics. Power said that people need proactive support to boost well-being, which focuses on both physical and the mental aspects. Boosting well-being through volunteer interaction can essentially reduce the need for antipsychotics.

COVID-19 has become a significant barrier for older adults at LTCs, limiting opportunities for them to interact with the outside world. If you are a student and find yourself looking for something to do over the next few months, call an LTC and ask them how you can help. Write letters and connect with residents via Skype calls. This may seem like it’s not much for you, but a nice conversation with a resident will go a long way for both you and the resident. When in-person volunteering opens up, give them an hour a week, volunteer during board game night or visit a resident and show them a skill. You could read a book to them, play an instrument or just have a talk. As a student, you will play a big role in our society’s future, while older adults have valuable advice and experiences for you to learn and benefit from.