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This week is national Volunteers’ Week and, as the NHS gears up to mark its 70th birthday this summer, the support of voluntary helpers is more important than ever.
A recent YouGov survey found that more than a fifth of adults in the UK would consider giving up their time to help the NHS, and Dorset has a growing army of people eager to do their bit.
Dorset HealthCare, which provides mental health and community services across the county, has around 300 volunteers. They lend a hand with everything from gardening and serving refreshments to supporting patient rehabilitation, as well as raising vital funds for our community hospitals.
People from all ages and backgrounds get involved – and Eileen Walters, who helps out at Blandford Hospital, says it has changed her life.
Eileen, 79, retired from her accounting job at a local solicitors firm two years ago, and was determined not to let the grass grow under her feet.
“Many people say I have too much energy and need to slow down, but who has time for that?” she said.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people who choose to retire and ends up sitting at home drinking cups of tea all day. I had been working for 62 years, and I wasn’t prepared to stop just yet.”
In 2016 she became a volunteer on the hospital’s Tarrant Ward, which provides care for elderly patients, and has never looked back. She helps out every Tuesday and Wednesday, driving the tea and cake round on her first shift, and hosting activity sessions on the second.
“If I had my time again, I would work in dementia care as it is so rewarding. I love elderly people because they have a wealth of knowledge and a great sense of humour. You can pretty much guarantee you will hear an inspirational story from them every day,” she said.
“I have so much fun on the tea rounds, especially flirting with all the men on the wards – they can be very cheeky but it’s all great banter, and it’s so important to have a bit of fun in an environment such as this.
“People don’t want to be in hospital, but if I can make their stay a little more enjoyable by having a joke with them, then I won’t hesitate.”
It’s in the activity sessions where Eileen has really found her calling. The ward often organises musician visits and holds regular therapy, craft and games sessions, all aimed at providing patients with physical and mental stimulation.
Eileen is at the forefront of these activities. She devised a game where patients pass a red balloon between each other and come up with words on a particular subject or past event, often sparking old memories and conversations.
“We had one lady who hardly said a word since being admitted. She attended one of our pianist sessions, and softly asked me whether I’d like to dance. We waltzed for around 15 minutes in front of everyone and it was incredible,” said Eileen.
“Her face lit up with the most beautiful smile when the song ended, and everyone in the room cheered and clapped. I went home that day and cried – it meant as much to me as it did to her.”
Eileen also recently completed a training course to ensure patients with problems swallowing foods and liquids can be fed safely – becoming the first Trust volunteer to gain the qualification.
Tarrant Ward Sister Kimberly Witt said: “Eileen has taken to the volunteering role like a duck to water, and you’ll often find her going that extra mile for our patients, whether it’s knitting for them or painting their nails.
“She has so much energy, and even dresses up as Miss Christmas and a witch at Halloween. She’s a ray of sunshine, and has an amazing rapport with patients and staff.
“We are really lucky to have such a great bunch of volunteers here at the hospital. We would genuinely be lost without their hard work and dedication.”
So what is Eileen’s secret?
“I’m absolutely barmy, but it’s the best way to be. I feel 21 years old and still believe I have a lot to give. I’ve worked with pay packets all my life, but felt more reward in my first week here and I wouldn’t change that for the world,” she said.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer at one of our 12 community hospitals, whatever amount of time you can spare, contact us on 01202 443 089 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.