Good Practices: Contributions from Voluntary Care and Support Groups within Local Communities

Voluntary care and support groups are often well-placed to fill gaps in provision for vulnerable persons and their caregivers. Such services within their communities are deserving of greater support from professionals, local authorities and government.

Frank O’Hagan

In praise of those who care for caregivers.

Context – a priority in our times: The role of caregivers is often an onerous one. It carries responsibilities which can occur unexpectedly and when a family is ill-equipped and confused by the ailments of a loved one. Dedicated and highly effective volunteers from different walks of life can deliver vital and pleasurable support on behalf of persons in need living within their local communities. They are often well-placed to help fill gaps in provision. In doing so, they contribute to building a more vibrant and compassionate society and greatly lessen the burden placed on over-stressed carers. The amount of financial savings which this work contributes to the public purse, including the budgets of local authorities and the National Health Service, is immense.

A case study: The overall administration of a voluntary group can be demanding. It encompasses such matters as the recruitment of skilled and suitable volunteers, timetabling and organisation of activities, and concerns relating to aspects of general health and safety. Nonetheless, when well-delivered, its impact and achievements can be truly life-affirming.

The example selected for this brief case study is called BreakAway which is composed of members from a faith congregation. Their involvement provides a flourishing example of voluntary work in action. My comments relate to activities across the years from 2017 to 2020 when I was fortunate to observe the group in action on many occasions.

Teamwork and dedication ensure success: Preparations include: (1) ascertaining the needs, strengths, interests and favourite pastimes of those attending sessions; (2) identifying and utilising the specific talents and relevant experiences among the volunteers; (3) effectively matching colleagues’ skills in relation to meeting the requirements of all participants; and (4) providing a varied and worthwhile programme of pursuits. Consideration has to be given to balancing one-to-one tasks, collaborative work in small groups, and those occasions when it is most appropriate for the whole gathering to be involved. Importantly, there is a focus on sustaining a happy and engaging ethos from the beginning to the end of sessions.

Fun, entertainment and relationships: The helpers give thoughtful attention to social bonding at coffee breaks and through heart-to-heart conversations, playing games such as dominoes or indoor bowling, group singing of songs from yesteryear, and social trips into the wider community. Planning takes due account of birthdays, anniversaries, the seasons of the year and national celebrations such as Burns’ Night.

Inclusiveness: Practical sessions cover a wide range of relevant activities – painting, designing, making greeting cards, flower arranging and other forms of hand-eye coordination. Examples of tasks which are focused on verbal skills and cognition comprise engagement in quizzes, crosswords and the completion of proverbs and well-known sayings. At all stages of meetings, the focus is placed firmly on participation, cooperation and enjoyment.  Everyone profits from a sense of belonging.

Appreciation from carers: Caregivers welcome and are grateful for support that is well- suited to the prerequisites of those for whom they are responsible. They take comfort in knowing that there is an emphasis on ‘living well in times of difficulty’ through the enhancement of features relating to personal and social health and wellbeing. They appreciate being kept well-informed about what takes place during sessions and being shown examples of drawings and artefacts which have been produced. Feedback on how individuals respond to planned activities and suggestions on leisure interests which they can undertake at home are also very helpful.

Mutual benefits: “It’s nice to be nice” goes the old adage. For volunteers, the giving and sharing of their time and the application of their talents bring their own insightful and beneficial rewards. They too learn from their membership of the group and can experience both pleasure and contentment through their valuable contributions.

Praise where praise is due: There is little doubt that voluntary community care and support organisations can and do provide indispensable services amid the hustle and stresses of modern life. It is unfortunate that their social capital is so frequently undervalued. A greater focus from government, councils and professional care workers on their roles and development is necessary and overdue.

“There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.” (Nelson Mandela)

Acknowledgement: My thanks to Gabrielle Buchanan and the team of volunteers at BreakAway, St Paul’s Church of Scotland, Milngavie.