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Abstract

A neglected topic in discussions of services for the institutionalized elderly seems to be the question of whether the residents of nursing homes are receiving adequate support from volunteers. Undoubtedly, voluntarism is playing an important part in the provision of services and emotional support for the aged population, among them the elderly that are institutionalized. But because of the child-centeredness and youth-orientation of American society, it is possible that work with the elderly may not be attracting volunteers in proportion to the needs of this population. This may be especially true of the elderly in institutions because work with this group does not hold out the promise of dramatic accomplishments, and the work itself is depressing and threatening to many. It also seems that nursing home residents may be more isolated from family and community than is generally realized, as suggested by a finding in the Detroit area that about a third of the residents lack family ties while a similar percentage has no regular visitors (Barney, 1973). It is likely that the malpractices which have given the nursing home industry a bad public image have also discouraged volunteering in proprietary homes. This discouragement may be compounded with a fear of exploitation and with the feeling that profit-making homes should contract for any services that are needed.

These questions arose as a result of experience gained in teaching a class in gerontology in which students did field work in nursing homes, among them some homes in Detroit's inner city. It was immediately obvious that some homes were almost totally lacking in volunteer support. The development of volunteer support became a cause for concern among the students, who wished that volunteers were available to take their place at the end of the semester. These concerns also suggested the need for research on volunteers. Several types of studies suggested themselves. For example, it would be useful to compare the extent of volunteer support for different segments of the population in order to determine whether, in fact, there is a bias against the elderly, especially against those in nursing homes. It might be useful to investigate what types of people are attracted to volunteer work in nursing homes. Some assessment is needed of the ongoing level of volunteer support for nursing homes, with an attempt to identify factors that may influence the level of support (e.g., the location of the homes and the type of home ownership). The work to be reported here falls in the last category. This type of study was done because it seemed the quickest and most direct way of breaking ground in this area.

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