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Volunteer at a Nursing Home: Create Memories to Treasure

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Life in a nursing home, even the best of nursing homes, is often confusing, frustrating, scary, and lonely.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 percent of nursing home residents have no close relatives, and 46 percent have no living children. These two facts are a major reason why an estimated 85 percent of nursing home residents never have visitors.

Human contact is critical for health. Yet, a University of Maryland study of more than 1,400 "significant others" of nursing home residents found that the number of visits and calls by family and friends declined by half after an individual entered a nursing home. Try to imagine how you would feel if you had to leave your home to live in a new environment where you had limited or no access to your family and friends.

Nursing home volunteer opportunities can include spending time with a resident, playing cards, talking, taking a walk, or sharing a meal. But you can also make visits during which you and the nursing home resident create and preserve memories that will provide comfort for the resident when friends and family are absent.

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* Contact local nursing homes and ask to speak with their volunteer coordinator. Ask what types of volunteer opportunities they offer and decide which one works best for you. You will be asked to meet with the coordinator and possibly attend an orientation session. You also can get tips on how to volunteer in a nursing home so you can become more familiar with what to expect.

* Help a nursing home resident celebrate his or her birthday and other special occasions. Ask about other memorable days in their lives and mark them on a calendar so you won't forget them. Any special occasion is a great time to encourage residents to talk about their memories of those days. 

* If you have a special talent or interest, be sure to let the volunteer coordinator know. For example, if you speak a language other than English, you could help with residents who speak that language. If you know how to play an instrument, make certain crafts, or sing, you might offer to entertain or help residents in these areas. 

* Ask if there are any residents who might want to work on a scrapbook or a book of life stories. Many residents of nursing homes may have wonderful stories to tell but no one to tell them to. You could be the person who helps them record their memories. Check with the nursing staff to find out if the resident has any family members who may want to participate.

* Ask a nursing house resident about his or her favorite music, movies, books, and poems. Share these with the resident and talk about the memories they stir up. Offer to help the resident preserve these memories in a life story book, scrapbook, or on tape. 

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