By: NobleHour Special Contributor Latasha Doyle
I have been volunteering in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and assisted living facilities since the age of 12. Raised by a nurse who worked exclusively in these settings, I grew up understanding the benefits that my companionship and my help provided to not only the staff, but also to the residents. As I reached adulthood and entered college, I continued volunteering even though I knew the hours wouldn’t be going on an application or résumé. To this day, at the age of 27, I volunteer one day a week at a local nursing home, engaging with the residents in the activities room, visiting with them in their “suites,” and helping set up for lunch and dinner. While there are days that I fully admit are stressful, emotional, or sometimes just plain difficult, I leave each of my volunteer shifts knowing that I helped someone, at least a little.
Many of the places I have volunteered provide for long-term care residents, short-term rehabilitation patients, and often have memory care units and hospice provisions. In the recent past, Medicaid spent around $65 billion to maintain and staff these facilities, a number I remember from multiple volunteer meetings held at my local nursing home. In light of recent changes to the American healthcare system, however, funding has been slashed as more people have access to Medicaid and additional healthcare expenses have been added to the national budget. In addition, even private pay residents and their families have a hard time meeting the expenses, as national care providers increase their cost by an average of 4% per year. What was already a balancing act, now has become a battle just to stay afloat. After a budget has been updated within one of these facilities, it is normal for a volunteer meeting to be called, where the administration implores volunteers to sign up for more shifts, recruit more people, and provide more services. This becomes increasingly important when paid employees have their hours slashed, leaving many places understaffed and unsafe. As a volunteer, you have an ability to fill these gaps.
Activity programs were the first to be cut at the facility where I currently volunteer, so I stepped in to save it. I am known as “The Dancing Queen” among the residents, because I bring in a stereo and provide the tunes and age-appropriate dancing on my volunteer days. I also fit in at least one round of bingo because most of the residents will congregate in the activities room when they hear the bingo balls rattling in their cage. I love the activities department because I get to see the residents have fun and engage with one another. I also see the people who are suffering, in pain, and very lonely split into a wide grin when they see me coming down the hall with my stereo. There is nothing quite like watching a room full of geriatric patients doing the Macarena in their chairs, either!
The best part of my day however, is when I get to visit with residents in their “suites,” which are really just hospital rooms they are allowed to decorate. Because of tight budgets, beds haven’t been replaced in nearly a decade, the paint is old and stained, and the windows are drafty and rattle in the wind. Despite that, these people usually put a lot of effort into making it a home, and I enter their rooms with the same respect you show when going to someone’s own house. I will sit and chat with each resident on my assigned wing for about 5-10 minutes. Just knowing they have someone to talk to about their aches and pains, or how bad the food is, or how their grandson is getting so tall makes them feel a little less lonely.
To be quite honest, as a volunteer, I feel honored to have these experiences and interactions with so many amazing people. I met a World War II veteran who crashed his plane and survived, a woman who was an infant on the Titanic, and a man who was blinded in the Rodney King riots in 1992. There is a vast history and a depth of culture in these places that you’d never even consider, until you talk to the residents. You might forget that, although they seem old and sick now, a lot of them led very fascinating, active lifestyles. However, after many hours talking to these residents, I have been repeatedly told that most of them feel unloved and unimportant, or they don’t have anything left to give anybody. I have heard it over and over again, and to be honest it breaks my heart. If my fellow volunteers and I didn’t take the time to chat with them, to organize activities, or to just be present, the reality is that no one else could take that time. There’s not enough staff to provide this aspect of care.
Caring for people goes beyond just the physical and immediate needs, but when these facilities are short-staffed or the staff is underpaid, the caregivers do not have the opportunity to truly care and show interest in their patients. By volunteering I can fill that unseen void, and also lift a burden from the staff. My mother often says that the hardest part of her job is that she can only help her residents physically - she can’t always make them happy.
One of the most difficult parts of my volunteer work is knowing when to draw the line. As a caregiver by nature, and maybe from following in my mother’s footsteps, I often feel like I could do more or give more when I volunteer to help the residents. Volunteers will understand this sensation - you might feel selfish because you don’t want to give more time, or have other obligations that prevent you from coming more often. Just know that whatever you can give helps more than you will ever know, and giving a little is so much better than not giving at all.
There are days when I feel like I can’t volunteer any more - days that are especially emotional, or days when I feel like I should be spending time with my own family. But I know I get something out of volunteering, just as much as the residents get something from me. I volunteer because it brings me joy, and because I know that where I place my time is where I place my heart. I think about the little gray-haired ladies dancing around the activities room to the music from their heyday, and I see all the men gather at the back of the room to watch. I think about the days when I enter someone’s suite to visit and their family is there, and everyone has a huge smile on their face. I remember all the times people have told me, “Thank you for listening,” and that’s when I know I’m going to be a volunteer forever.
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Latasha Doyle is a writer and long term care volunteer living outside of Denver, Colorado. When she's not writing or volunteering, she enjoys crocheting, Netflix marathons, and planning her next trip.