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Western Sydney University releases research report revealing invaluable impact of volunteers on the vulnerable elderly

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A three-year research group at Western Sydney University (WSU) revealed findings yesterday that demonstrated the invaluable impact that volunteer members of society have when supporting vulnerable elderly people.

The research project, On the Brim: Impact of Volunteer Support on Vulnerable Elderly was formed as a partnership between Catholic Healthcare and WSU in 2014, with the objective to evaluate the relationship between volunteer support and vulnerable, elderly clients “on the brim” of homelessness.

Catholic Healthcare is a not-for-profit aged care provider that delivers its services to older persons in New South Wales, ACT and south-eastern Queensland. In 2017 the organisation reported supporting more than 49% of its residents on a concessional basis.

The WSU study assessed a group of clients twice over the course of the project; ascertaining both their mental and physical health before and after they received volunteer support.

The report indicated that overall, the placement of a volunteer as a presence in people’s lives impacts greatly on health outcomes; quality of life, an increase in life enjoyment and even a reduction in health risks.

Conversely, the second assessment of the clients’ mental health revealed that participants reported elevated levels of loneliness after they had stopped receiving their volunteer support.

Head of the Research Project, Dr Renu Narchal, explained the finding provided some valuable insights to the longevity of volunteer support in the future.

“The finding suggests that once the participants had experienced volunteer support, they actually missed the company and the support of the volunteer, whereas previously, they felt “used to being alone”,” she said.

The research project also used qualitative research with three focus groups; volunteers, home and community staff members and home and community clients. The research revealed suggestions such as a greater focus on volunteer training; staff and volunteers to access more information about their clients; and continued, regular interaction with the same combination of volunteer and client for greater development of connection, over time.

“The theme of recovery through connection demonstrates that the volunteer support is a valuable way of lifting the mist of living on the brim by allowing clients to reconnect with their sense of self,” said Dr Narchal.

“The fact that clients reported higher scores on loneliness after volunteer support was introduced, highlights the need for such service. Clients were able to rediscover what they had been missing in life, a sense of self-worth and connection.”

Catholic Healthcare Manager of Mission, Margaret Woods, who had a significant role in initiating the research project, took the time to thank WSU and expressed the importance of continuing such research in the future.

“We started this project as a way of truly understanding our clients’ isolation and how volunteers could help them connect, once again,” she said.

“We knew that they helped, but not without this kind of research to support our theories. It’s provided us with a toolbox of volunteer strategies for the future. And there’s so much more to learn so we can provide the best care possible to our clients and residents.”