18 Constructing the hospice volunteer role: emerging findings from an ethnographic exploration

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IntroductionThe modern hospice movement in western societies has involved volunteers since its inception. With the increasing demand for end-of-life and palliative care, there is likely to be a corresponding increased demand for volunteers, who have been estimated to reduce hospice costs by 23 per cent (Help the Hospices, 2006). However, palliative and end-of-life care has tended to follow a medical model in western societies, which has placed the role of the volunteer outside the boundary of professional care.AimsTo explore the role of patient-facing volunteers in adult end-of-life care.MethodsParticipant observation in two UK adult hospices, extended conversations with participants, analysis of relevant hospice documents.FindingsThe role is constructed by boundaries, including clinical and professional, but always within the framework of the boundary between life and death. My data showed that while the role is seen as distinct and separate from that of paid staff, the volunteer role was sometimes difficult to negotiate. How this played out demonstrated how the hospice constructed the volunteer role, but also how the hospice constructed death and dying.ConclusionsMy findings highlight what is happening in a clinical setting through the lens of a ‘neglected’ group of workers, and I will offer recommendations to improve current practice. Ethnography offers in-depth data to present the reality of the volunteer role that will have relevance to policy and practice.Reference. Help the Hospices: Volunteer value: A pilot survey of UK hospices. London: Help the Hospices 2006.

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