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Volunteers play a key role in ensuring that the needs of older Canadians are met

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Volunteers play a key role in ensuring that the needs of older Canadians are met — from social interaction to fitness — and that seniors can remain active members of their communities. Opportunities to help, and to be helped, exist from coast to coast, and in many cases seniors themselves are the volunteers.

The Patient Voices Network (PVN) matches patient volunteers with engagement opportunities across British Columbia’s health care system. Patients, family members and caregivers can sit on advisory committees of health care partners, share their treatment experiences with nurses, participate in research projects or help create programs to improve how care is delivered.

“Patients are often experts in their own condition and have a unique perspective based on their lived experience,” says Leah Smith, engagement leader at PVN. “Increased patient involvement in priority-setting and decision-making allows researchers and clinicians to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the patient experience of care and to collaboratively identify opportunities for improvement.”

Patient partners sit on committees to enhance residential services, aid in the development of guidelines to improve mental health and substance use treatments or act as members on advisory committees to discuss policy. A program at the Northwest Community College in Terrace, B.C., gives second-year nursing students the opportunity to hear directly from patients about their experiences. Another solicits advice from patients with COPD.

“Patients with COPD will be involved in evaluating the effectiveness of home health monitoring in the prevention of unnecessary emergency department visits and hospitalizations,” Smith says. “This will help to ensure that the evaluation includes the patient perspective when considering which in-home monitoring supports might be most effective.”

In Ontario, Rural Ottawa South Support Services (ROSSS) delivers programs and services for seniors and adults with physical disabilities. It offers transportation services, support groups, an adult day program, and social gatherings. It’s the latter that Courtney Rock, volunteer manager at ROSSS, identifies as the organization’s greatest need.

“We’re always looking for people who want to build a relationship with a senior by sharing stories over a cup of tea or playing a card game.” She stresses to volunteers that it’s less about planning a full schedule of activities than it is about simply taking time to sit with seniors. “For many of our clients this is the only time during the week that they’re out of the house. These friendly visits keep seniors connected to their community.”

In Nova Scotia, opportunities to volunteer abound within the public system as well as within private care facilities. Chebucto Links Senior Support Association in Halifax uses volunteers to help seniors get around town and to help run its programs. Community Links aims to meet the needs of seniors wherever they live throughout rural Nova Scotia.

Often, the volunteers are seniors themselves, though they don’t always think of themselves that way. “We have people in their 80s who tell me they don’t need our services because they’re for ‘old people,’” Rock says, laughing.

Younger seniors who volunteer not only help reduce the burden on the medical system, but are benefiting from their involvement. “For the 55-plus crowd, who we call junior-seniors, they’ve moved to be closer to their kids or grandkids and want to be involved in their new community,” says Rock. “Volunteering with us prevents social isolation for them as well.”