I joined Dorothy House three years ago as the volunteer companions’ co-ordinator with a remit to grow the service to meet the needs of the organisation. When I started, there were six volunteers – now there are 41 active volunteer companions, offering usually weekly or fortnightly visits.
Our companions serve two functions – the first to provide social contact and companionship for the patient. That could include minor help, say, going shopping with them, or perhaps going for a walk or being in the garden with them – but they are not medically trained and they are not carers. They can’t offer personal care, so the emphasis is on doing things with the patient, not instead of them. The second is to provide respite care, to allow the patient’s carer or spouse to go out for a couple of hours knowing that the patient is safe. That’s a lifeline as, often, if the patient is housebound, so is the carer.
Patients are referred internally by Dorothy House clinicians – mostly by nurse specialists. Numbers fluctuate as does the period of companionship – sometimes it’s just for a few weeks, but it can be for up to a year or even two, depending on need.
Volunteers offer half a day at a time– some work full-time and can only do weekends – I usually match them so they just visit every fortnight. Some volunteer with more than one patient, so their time commitment is more.
My volunteer team have come from all walks of life – some medical and some with no experience of volunteering or of caring. Some have had personal experience of Dorothy House in which case we usually ask for a period of time before they join as a companion. Often, our companions are also volunteering elsewhere in the organisation, say, as drivers.
We also find companions for families – sometimes it’s a way for bereaved people to find their way in the community again. Everyone is different – it’s for as long as is needed.
I began my career as a nurse, then for 24 years worked with volunteers in the community. There is a common thread and nursing was a good start.
I love working here. The volunteers are valued as much as the staff, and there are equal expectations of them to be professional. I haven’t had to battle to fight the volunteers’ corner – I can do what I should be doing, which is supporting volunteers to support the patients. I love the way I’ve been able to develop the service to meet a need rather than having to follow the pennies.
There aren’t enough hours in the day but that means thinking smart – I have five active lead volunteers who do a lot of the volunteer support – they help me match patients with companions. These are people who have done the job themselves, so they have the skills.
We could grow more – it would be great to not have a waiting list of patients. It used to be six months, now it’s around four weeks. We’re incredibly lucky – the way we attract volunteers here. The website attracts inquiries and the profile of the service is amazing.