Exploring the role of volunteers in care settings for older people

Ailsa Cameron Completed   2019


Faced with a rising demand for services, cuts to health and adult social care funding and recruitment difficulties, social care services for older people have become more reliant on the contributions of volunteers. Although previous studies have considered the use of volunteers in adult social care, the sector has been subject to a great deal of change over the past decade. Increasing proliferation in how, where and by whom social care is delivered has transformed the manner in which volunteers contribute to the provision of social care services for older people. The contribution of volunteers to the provision of social care for older adults is frequently valorised by government ministers.


The aim of this study was to explore the role of volunteers in the provision of adult social care settings by exploring:

  • The roles do volunteers play in social care settings
  • The motivations of managers and/or coordinators in seeking the contributions of volunteers and what are the challenges and opportunities related to their involvement
  • How volunteering perceived and experienced by volunteers and paid members of staff
  • How older people perceive and experience volunteer involvement in social care
  • What can social care services learn from current practice with volunteers in older people’s services.


This study used an in-depth qualitative case study design to explore the role of volunteers. It recruited seven organisations from the south West region that engaged volunteers to contribute to the provision of social care for older people. These included: one retirement village (befriending service), one care home (befriending service); two day-care centres (one provided care to
older people from a Black and Minority ethnic community); one Time Bank (lunch club); one home from hospital support project and one physical activities programme provided in residential care homes.

At each of the seven participating settings, interviews were held with volunteers, coordinators/ managers of volunteers, care workers and older people receiving care. 94 interviews took place with: 39 volunteers; 14 care staff, 24 older people and 17 managers (including 4 regional managers). Of the 39 volunteers interviewed, 27 were female and 12 were male. At least three quarters of the volunteers were aged over 60 and most described themselves as formally retired (n = 26) or not currently in paid employment (n = 10). Just three volunteers said that they were aged under 30 and three volunteers said that they were in paid employment.


  • The contribution volunteers make to adult social care services can be classified in three ways: augmenting existing care services; providing a discrete free-standing service; or
    substituting for care workers by filling gaps in provision.
  • In settings where volunteers provided a discrete service or augmented provision the volunteer role had clear boundaries. In contrast, where volunteers were filling gaps there was less clarity between the role of volunteers and that of paid care workers.
  • Organisations that employed a volunteer coordinator/manager were more likely to have an established ‘volunteer package’. In others there appeared to be more confusion over what the volunteer role was and how it should be carried out.
  • These findings contest the idea that there is an ‘army’ of volunteers that can be drawn upon to aid the delivery of social care. This is due to factors such as increased
    intergenerational care, rising female employment, later retirement and rurality.
Exploring the role of volunteers in care settings for older people (ERVIC)
( https://www.sscr.nihr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/SSCR-research-findings_RF119.pdf )
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