Volunteers are vital to our economy.

According to a 2017 report by Volunteering Australia, they provide more than an estimated $290 billion per year in economic and social contributions to our society. But more than that, volunteering also has a positive effect on mental wellbeing for the volunteer, making volunteering an extremely valuable activity for many people, especially those who live alone or may potentially be at a higher risk of social isolation from their community, such as retirees.

Senior man volunteering with Meals on Wheels to elderly woman.

The problem at this time in history is that those people who provide face-to-face volunteering support to the aged care sector, such as Meals on Wheels delivery drivers or the Community Visitor Scheme, are often seniors themselves. In this current COVID-19 pandemic, they are in the high-risk category and have had to cease volunteering activities. A recent Volunteering Australia survey concluded that volunteer activity has decreased by approximately two-thirds since February 2020.

The personal risk to volunteers, combined with the necessity for many volunteer organisations to cease operations during this time, means many of our volunteers are now faced with isolation from their community, their routines have been interrupted, and many are bored. These issues may have even led many people to become a volunteer to begin with.

Volunteering Australia recently commissioned a survey about the impact on life satisfaction and psychological stress of COVID-19 and noted that:

  • respondents including volunteers and non-volunteers experienced a decline in life satisfaction between January 2020 and April 2020;
  • there was a significantly and substantially smaller decline in life satisfaction for those volunteers who did not stop volunteering compared to those who stopped, or who never volunteered in the first place;
  • for those who continued volunteering, levels of psychological distress were also significantly and substantially lower than those who stopped volunteering and those who had never volunteered in the first place.

So we know that volunteering is good for people, and practicing self-isolation is not a luxury for many seniors who live alone. It's their everyday life, but now they’re stuck at home. Now they have time to watch the news reports on the virus, its impact on the world, and many have no one to discuss this with. Their social outlets and contacts have been curtailed. This will impact on their mental health and possibly their physical wellbeing, so getting some form of normality back in volunteering is important as the economy opens back up.

But how can we resume volunteering practices safely?

Volunteer organisations will need to follow the same practices as other businesses, ensuring that physical or social distancing practices are adhered to. For aged care services it might include:

  • staggering the times that volunteers work with consumers or come into the operational centre to perhaps pick up meals. This will serve to limit the numbers of people on site at any one time;
  • holding smaller group activities and spacing people out more;
  • where vehicles are used for activities, organisations need to be vigilant in making sure surfaces that are touched regularly get cleaned and sanitised;
  • encouraging volunteers to get a flu shot. In residential facilities this is mandatory, however it might be advisable for the organisation to provide information to their volunteers on the importance of protecting vulnerable clients, especially through this coming winter. Many of them also fall into the ‘vulnerable' category due to their age and health status;
  • reviewing the venues used for activities, such as community halls. Is there enough room to allow for a 1.5m distance between people? What additional practices might need to be put in place, such as additional cleaning of toilets more regularly, or having sanitiser dispensers around the room;
  • temperature checking of volunteers and logging these at the start of the day and excluding anyone who appears to have a temperature or flu-like symptoms;
  • providing information to volunteers on when they shouldn’t come in;
  • ensure you have sign in and sign out sheets and processes to identify who is more likely to have come in contact with a person later identified as having COVID-19 to assist with contact tracing;
  • encourage the downloading and activation of the COVID-19 app for volunteers who have a smartphone to support faster contact tracing;
  • change the way things are done. Can some of the face-to-face work be done online or over the phone, at least for the next few months?

A big thank you to all those who volunteer, your work is appreciated!

I hope that you can return to your volunteering activities shortly, but overall please stay safe, we need you.

If you or your volunteers need help during this time Head to Health is a Government funded website that provides mental health information and support. The website notes, “Discussions and concerns around the coronavirus outbreak and practicing self-isolation can be stressful and impact our mental health and wellbeing. It’s natural to feel a range of emotions, such as stress, worry, anxiety, boredom, or low mood. Many people feel distressed by the constant news and overwhelming amount of information about the situation.”

The website describes practical psychological skills to help you and your loved ones cope with anxiety and worry about infectious diseases.

Lifeline also has some tips on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Gayaa Dhuwi organisation – an indigenous mental health advice organisation

Established in late March 2020, Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia is the new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and suicide prevention national leadership body. It is governed and controlled by Indigenous experts and peak bodies working in these areas, promoting collective excellence in mental health care. They also have some useful resources relating to staying safe and healthy during COVID-19.

If you can think of someone else who might benefit from this article, send them a link. We’d appreciate it! And if you’re looking for more helpful resources, why not check out our Total Quality Package resource hub? We have culturally appropriate, tailored resources that are designed to make your job simpler and help you provide quality care to your clients. Click here to find out more.

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