Establishing the Qualities of a Meaningful Volunteer Experience: Providing Virtual Social Support to Elders During the COVID -19 Pandemic

2021 Poster ~

Casey Acklin ~ Program Coordinator Dementia Engagement, Education and Research (DEER) Program ~ School of Community Health Sciences, University of Nevada:
Casey Acklin serves as Program Coordinator for the Dementia Engagement, Education, and Research Program in the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno in Reno, Nevada. Casey graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic in 2015. He is passionate about supporting the wellbeing of elders and people living with dementia by building inclusive communities in which all community members can thrive.

Carrie Aalberts, Community Outreach and Training Coordinator for Nevada Senior Services:
Carrie Aalberts is an outreach coordinator for Nevada Senior Services. She received her Master of Science from UNR and is a Certified Dementia Practitioner. Carrie has been volunteering within The NEST Collaborative, as a guide since the start of the pandemic. She is passionate about the aging population in Nevada and how we as a community can continue supporting them through this difficult time.

Full list of authors: Casey Acklin, Carrie Aalberts, Samantha Savalli, Ryan Nolan, Heather Gonzales, Sarah Friedman, Peter Reed, Zebbedia Gibb, Jennifer Carson, Jessica Ohl

When discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be said that “we’re all in the same boat.” However, it may be more accurate to say “we’re all boats in the same ocean.” For some, COVID-19 and the social distancing implemented to quell its spread are little more than an inconvenience. For others, they are life-threatening. Those lines unfortunately are most often drawn generationally, with elders experiencing not only increased risk of complications and mortality from COVID-19, but also increased impact of social isolation and loneliness on their overall health and wellbeing.

Yet distance need not equate to disconnection. In March of 2020, over 30 aging- and social-services organizations convened The NEST Collaborative (NEST = Nevada Ensures Support Together) to offer free, virtual, volunteer-hosted social and technical support to elders across Nevada.

Central to The NEST Collaborative’s mission is the development of authentic and reciprocal relationships between volunteers and the program participants they serve. In fact, we hope volunteers will gain as much as they give. Volunteer investment in the programs they support helps to ensure the delivery of high-quality service to participants. To understand whether we are achieving this goal, we embarked on an evaluation assessing the level of support perceived by volunteers and identifying the enablers of a positive volunteer experience.

Findings indicated a strong appreciation among volunteers for the structure of The NEST Collaborative, in which a small cohort of volunteers is supported by two co-guides. Additionally, volunteers expressed gratitude for the robust training they received at the outset of their service. Lastly, they indicated the importance of knowing that concerns expressed by participants are acted upon in a timely fashion, ensuring that all needs are met and nobody is ignored.

These insights will help The NEST Collaborative continue to improve its programs and can serve as guidance for other initiatives seeking to launch virtual, volunteer-hosted social support endeavors.