A Rant About Nursing Home Volunteers

Note: I work as an Assistant Activities Director in a not-for-profit nursing facility. I love my work, and I love the people I work with. We have many volunteers who visit and do a tremendous amount of good for our elderly residents. This is a rant about the ones that are less helpful. Especially Brownie troops.

Brownie troops are the worst.

They call you up three weeks before Christmas and tell you they want to come caroling for your residents. What time works for you? Well, let’s see, it’s already December, so the monthly activity calendar was finalized over a week ago and is literally up on the walls in every unit, but I guess we could squeeze you in at 2:30 on the 17th. “Um, I’m not sure that time works for the other parents – could we do 1pm on the 20th instead?” No. No, you can’t. The residents are eating lunch at that time. “Well how about 3pm on the 19th?” Nope, we’re having a concert then. We booked it in March. Look, if you wanted to have your pick of dates and times, you might have at least contacted us in November.

This generally goes on for a while. Eventually, the troop leader will convince you to let the kids come in to sing right after lunch on some totally inconvenient date, and you’ll resign yourself to having to gather an audience for them while the kitchen staff is still using the elevator. You tell them it’ll be a smallish crowd, since you’ll only be able to invite the one unit, but you’ll make it work.

But here’s the thing: it’s really really sad to have only four residents in a room, two of them sleeping, when a group comes in to perform for them. So you pull out all the stops, invite everyone on the damn floor, convince them to postpone their afternoon naps, and get a pretty decent crowd all lined up in rows in the dining room, waiting for a show.

Then the troop shows up late.

And sings for ten minutes.

Really badly.

The parents all take photos and videos of their adorable children doing their godawful rendition of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer so that they can show all their unwilling friends and family how cute little Flaelin was, bringing Christmas cheer to the poor souls in the nursing home. Then they leave, patting themselves and their kids on the back. We did it! Our good deed for the year is done.

This happens every Christmas season, and it drives me up the bleeping wall.

Look, nursing homes thrive on good volunteers. Even the very best staff-to-patient ratio is just not high enough for us to visit every resident every day and spend even a solid half hour or so with each one. I mean, the nursing department certainly spends its time with each and every resident, but giving you your Lasix and changing your foot wraps and taking you to the bathroom aren’t what most of us would call quality time. The activities department can entertain those who are willing to leave their rooms for our programming, but we are in constant need of volunteers to visit the people who prefer to just sit and talk to someone while watching Bonanza out of the corner of one eye. We also need people who can help us with transportation, so that we can invite more people to concerts or other fun activities and maybe even spend a few minutes convincing a shut-in that it’s worth leaving their room for once. As it is, we often have to take the first “no” as our final answer, because otherwise it would take us forty-five minutes to gather twelve residents.

So yes, we want volunteers. We NEED volunteers! But we don’t need Brownie troops.

I’m not just talking about literal Brownie troops here, mind you. Whatever their issues, they tend to only contact us in the last two months of the year. I mean people who act like Brownie troops, volunteers who:

  1. Expect you to accommodate their schedule rather than the other way around,
  2. Aren’t actually helpful, and
  3. Insist on patting themselves on the back because they, out of the goodness of their hearts, have visited a nursing home.

There are always a few of these. There are some who ‘volunteer’ because they love having a captive audience that has to listen to their dreadful, repetitive jokes day in and day out. They complain that you started bingo without them, never mind that they showed up forty-five minutes late and didn’t tell anyone they were coming, and they think they’re joking, but there isn’t anything remotely funny about being complained at for no reason. Now, these people can be genuinely helpful too, but you still die inside a little bit when you see them coming down the hall.

There are the people who have no real interest in helping, but need community service hours. Community service is great if you’re going to be truly helpful while you’re here, but for the love of all that’s good and holy, don’t expect us to babysit you. Volunteers who aren’t just dropping by to put on a one-time show need to be oriented, they need to pass a TB skin test and a CORI check, and they need a good deal of initial instruction on what to do and how to handle certain situations. If they go on to do good work, this is all worth it. But often they don’t, and if you generate more work than you put in, you’re actually draining our resources in order to tell the world that you’ve been doing good deeds.

Then there is the Interrupting Do-Gooder. The Interrupting Do-Gooder shows up in the middle of your trivia game, sing-along, or current events discussion, and loudly greets Every. Single. Resident. He vaguely acknowledges the disruption he is causing, but still proceeds to loudly tell the lady in the corner all about his daughter’s gall bladder surgery. He knows she’s a little deaf, so he has to speak extra loud. Wouldn’t want Mabel to miss all the important details. Then he leaves to visit some people in their rooms, which is a genuinely wonderful thing, but it makes you wonder why he didn’t visit those people first when he saw that folks were already having a good time in the group activity. In fact, the more you think about it, the more it infuriates you. How clueless can a guy be? And of course, he always does his interrupting with that classic Brownie troop attitude: I’m here to cheer people up. I’ve done my job. I’m a great person!

I have been working in activities for nearly seven years now, and I love it. My job is essentially to make friends with people, to keep them occupied and entertained, but also to make sure they feel understood. Loneliness has been demonstrated to cause massive physical and psychological harm to elders, and in a medical system devoted to keeping people alive at all costs, activities professionals are sometimes the only ones whose job is to make all that longevity worthwhile. Volunteers can support that goal in really useful and essential ways.

Even Brownie troops can have their place. Most residents love spending time with kids. The trouble comes when parents and leaders expect maximal accommodation for a truly minimal contribution. Since gathering an audience isn’t worth it for a ten or fifteen minute performance, it would be better if groups with young kids would arrange with us to visit room-to-room, spreading cheer by telling residents about school, troop activities, favorite colors, whatever. A little bit of singing won’t do anyone any harm, but let’s face it: the pleasure of watching a Brownie troop sing Christmas carols isn’t really about the music, which often has very little merit of its own. The pleasure comes from watching little kids be cute, no talent show required.

But seriously, don’t call us after Thanksgiving unless you want to visit in January.


N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s really good. You should buy it.

If you are interested in getting a signed copy, check out the events on my News page.

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