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Preparing volunteers to support residents with dementia

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A voluntary sector development agency, South Derbyshire CVS, explains how it recruited volunteers for a residential care home.


South Derbyshire CVS works with a residential home specialising in dementia. At a Midlands Share and Learn event, Kerrie Fletcher and Imogen Gallop, with one of the project’s volunteers, Jane German, discussed how to prepare volunteers to work with residents. The event was part of NCVO's Volunteering in Care Homes Project.

The issues we faced

We realised those volunteering with dementia patients could be placed in situations they might find daunting and that it was important for them to be properly prepared and trained.

Recruitment is a two-way process – organisations decide if volunteers are suitable (take up references, undertake DBS checks and so on) and volunteers decide if a role is right for them. 

The actions we took


We used existing networks to recruit. These included: 

  • the website
  • our volunteering e-bulletin
  • a CVS newsletter
  • local press
  • advice sessions at the volunteer centre. 

We had a strong response from local press linked to volunteer training dates. We advertised in care homes (so families, friends and visitors were aware of the project), distributed leaflets and displayed posters around the area. We wrote to parents at a school and joined forces with a volunteer centre in another district.


A volunteer told us, “Training workshops were highly informative and gave a sense of what the volunteering entailed. I learned a lot about the role and what we could and could not do”.

We found it useful for a member of staff from the care home to join us at the training. Supporting care home employees is crucial to successful volunteer engagement. A welcoming and receptive first impression makes a big difference.

In the words of another volunteer, “I was given a tour around the care home and was introduced to some of the residents. The lady who showed me around told me a bit about each of the residents, which gave me ideas about what to talk to them about”. 

A member of the volunteer centre staff accompanied the volunteer’s initial visit to the care home. This allowed us to identify if the volunteer has concerns and to offer support or reassurance.

Positive outcomes

Young Rotarians from a local school brought in old photographs of the town and encouraged residents to share their memories.

A volunteer talked about his travels. Another organised a music quiz. This class was beyond many residents but the volunteer now instead offers music sessions. 

The volunteer explained, “I realised I would not be able to do a quiz which normally involves writing answers. The care home manager suggested I play music, ask questions, and rely on verbal answers. By the fourth tune, three or four people had come in with answers and others were making piano style motions on their tables. One lady was dancing around the tables with the help of the staff”.

Other positive outcomes:

  • existing volunteers were willing to be shadowed by new volunteers
  • volunteers were given opportunities for peer support at training sessions and meetings
  • volunteers tried out supervised, one-off ‘taster sessions’.

Negative outcomes

It would have been useful to spend longer preparing care home staff for their role as supervisors of volunteers. Managers and owners had been briefed, and were on board, and we wrongly assumed staff were too. Staff needed to:

  • understand the role of volunteers
  • feel positive about their arrival
  • plan their time to accommodate volunteers.

Some staff had concerns that volunteers were there to scrutinise them. Others misunderstood the boundaries of the role and so asked volunteers to stay longer than agreed or to help with personal care.  
We were focussed on the recruitment and training of volunteers – less so on the preparation of those working with them.

As the relationship has developed we have realised how important it is to have input and feedback from the care home staff.  

Lessons learnt

Following the training, some chose not to volunteer and it was helpful to know at this stage that they were not suited to supporting dementia patients. Training clarifies the nature and boundaries of the role and identifies potentially difficult situations. 

While recruitment, screening, and induction may seem a lengthy process, those who complete the journey are prepared, minimising drop-out rates. This reduces the investment of care home staff time and disruption to residents.

What stands out is that volunteers coped best if they set a limit on how much time they wanted to volunteer. Some found an hour and a half was just right.

One volunteer said, “Although I did feel nervous at first, after a few visits I really started to enjoy myself. Over the summer I spent at least a couple of hours at the care home every week, which usually involved just sitting and talking with the residents, going for walks in the gardens, making the odd cup of tea.”

Another explained, “I feel like I really got to know the residents – especially a couple of my favourites – and found it extremely heart-warming when some started to remember my name and look really happy to see me. It is so rewarding thinking that you probably made that person’s day, simply by sitting and chatting with them for a few minutes, especially to those who don’t get many visitors.”


Page last edited Feb 10, 2016

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